Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Julie Lammers of American Student Assistance (ASA) Is Helping To…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Julie Lammers of American Student Assistance (ASA) Is Helping To Change Our World

It is okay to not have all the answers. Embrace the fact that you don’t, admit it to others, ask for help, and always be willing to learn. I think a big part of leadership is making sure you can empower your team to do their jobs and be okay with the fact that they may know more than you. With that comes some humility that you might not always be the one with the answer or the best idea, but as a team, you can rely on each other to get to a good end goal.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Lammers.

Julie Lammers is Senior Vice President, Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility at American Student Assistance® (ASA), a national nonprofit organization changing the way middle and high schoolers learn about careers and navigate a path to postsecondary education and career success.

Kids today are not adequately prepared to make informed, confident decisions about what they want to do after high school. Our goal is to increase opportunity to ensure all youth have equitable access to robust, high-quality career-connected learning throughout their middle and high school years so that they will be well equipped to navigate a path to success after high school. To fulfill our mission, we provide digital programs, and support organizations and policies that will allowing kids to explore their career interests and future paths, get hands-on work-based learning opportunities in high school, and then help them navigate to postsecondary education and career beyond high school.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As Senior Vice President, Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility, I lead ASA’s government relations and advocacy efforts on both the federal and state level, helping to build relationships with elected officials and promote ASA’s policy priorities on education and workforce issues. In addition, I oversee our philanthropy efforts as we work to ensure greater opportunity and available services for our highest need students.

I joined ASA in March 2010, after having spent more than nine years as Congressional Aide to U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his successor, U.S. Senator Paul Kirk, Jr. The focus of my work was managing public outreach to constituent groups on national policy related to education, and a variety of other issues. So, while my background is in education policy, what makes ASA’s mission to ensure every student is prepared to achieve education and career success very personal for me is that the only way I got that first job in politics is through an internship I was fortunate enough to have in high school.

I started working in Senator Kennedy’s Boston office as a senior in high school. An opportunity, I should point out, that took some convincing because I was younger than their typical intern. But once I was there and able to prove I could contribute in productive ways, the experience was invaluable to allow me to narrow down what I wanted to do in my career, and by doing it in high school, helped me focus my postsecondary education experiences around a career in policy and government. I was fortunate to attend a university with a strong cooperative education program, one that allowed me to try six different paid work experiences prior to graduating college and further refine my career interests and goals. I worked in state government, government relations offices, the British Parliament and continued to intern with Senator Kennedy’s office, securing a full-time position on his staff when I finished college.

Because my entire career was started and refined by work-based learning experiences, I see how valuable they are in helping students, not only secure long-term career success, but learn who they are and what they want from the working world. Every student should have the ability to experience work prior to leaving high school and so I find it so rewarding that this a key pillar of ASA’s mission. As part of my role at ASA, we have worked very hard to get a solid understanding of how well students are equipped to participate in work-based learning experiences and how we can expand these opportunities. Research tells us that that while 79% of high school students would be interested in a work-based learning experience, only 34% were aware of any opportunities for students their age — and just 2% of students had completed an internship during high school. So we have a long way to go to increase access to opportunity.

A key component of work-based learning is allowing students to learn through work rather than working instead of learning. So, paid experiences are critical to ensure students who need to help support their families or pay for additional expenses are not excluded from these valuable opportunities to build social capital and social networks that will enable them to gain skills that are will be relevant to their career goals. That’s what worked best for me, and the experience I would like to see all young people have access to.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The areas of the organization that I lead — Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility — have seen a big shift in the last few years. The social and economic ramifications of the pandemic have led many to rethink how our education and workforce systems must be reshaped to better serve the needs of all. And whether it is the policies that are being elevated on the political front or the philanthropic investments we see committed, it is wonderful to see that in such a divided time, there is wide consensus on issues of workforce readiness.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I think the hardest lesson I learned when I was first starting the advocacy part of my job was assuming everyone I spoke to had the same level of interest or passion for the issues I was talking about. I got a lot of blank stares in those early days by making assumptions that people cared about what was important to me. I soon came to realize that part of my job was to make them care, to make it relevant to them, and then try to bring them around to my way of thinking. I think what I have learned over time is that those conversations can’t end. You have to constantly bring people along with you, or one day you will discover you were all traveling down different paths, with a different vision and end goal.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

ASA has funded promising models, conducted extensive research, and built programs that allow students to explore career both in and beyond the classroom. Along the way, we reached more than 11 million young people — and learned what works and what doesn’t. We’ve learned that self-directed, digital learning experiences beyond the classroom are not only the best way to scale equitable access to career exploration, but also give young people the agency they crave and meet them where they are (which is on their mobile devices).

To this end, our newest digital experience, Next VoiceTM is designed to help kids explore current social issues, take action, and gain valuable real-world, advocacy skills while providing opportunities to test and apply in real time what they’ve learned along the way. These skills — the ability to research, hone an argument, communicate your point of view, and work with others toward a common cause — are all skills that every student needs to be career ready.

In addition to our digital experiences, we want to ensure that there are opportunities for students to explore their career interests and experiment with opportunities such as internships and entrepreneurship experiences. This year we funded a number of wonderful organizations like Mentor and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, who are working to ensure high-quality social capital or entrepreneurship experiences are available to students. In addition, we just closed out the second round of the Catalyze Challenge with a group of funder partners. This year we collectively funded 40 organizations pushing new innovations in career-connected learning throughout the country. I am constantly amazed by the outstanding work these innovative organizations are doing to connect students to career experiences.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We partner with mission-aligned organizations, such as Big Picture Learning (BPL), to provide work-based learning opportunities (e.g., internships) to thousands of high school students across California and nationwide.

BPL’s Learning Through Interests and Internships (LTI) program is designed to increase student access to career exploration activities such as informational interviews, shadow days, internships and mentorship opportunities integrated within other components of the educational experience.

One of BPL’s former interns at the San Diego Met High School recently secured an internship and job opportunity with the San Diego Mayor’s Office, and she’s now studying at a university in San Francisco.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need to foster more policies that support the notion that career readiness should be a priority for all young people, no later than middle school. For a very long time, there has been a bifurcation of our education system and policies that support the idea that a student should be on a track to college or a track to a career. The reality is college AND career success should be the goal for all students. In fact, those students who are the most successful in college are those who have a strong sense of why they are attending, what they want from the experiences, and how it can further their career goals. That process has to start much earlier in the education continuum if we are to ensure that more students are making deliberate choices about postsecondary education that are linked to long-term career goals. College has become too expensive an activity to be the testing ground for personal exploration, and for far too many, the risk of trying and failing is far too high. We need to support more policies like expansion of high school pathway programs and high-quality paid internship experiences that allow for that exploration to happen at earlier ages, when the risk of failure is less and when a failure in something like an internship that you hate, is actually a good learning experience to further clarify your career interests and the type of postsecondary education you may want to pursue.

In addition, we need to begin to shift the perception that there is a one-size-fits-all postsecondary education experience, and that anything other than a four-year degree has lesser value in both public perception and hiring ability. From a policy perspective that starts with employers reevaluating their requirements for a bachelor’s degree as a minimum threshold for hiring. Requiring a college degree as a default not only limits the talent pool and shuts out capable and engaged young people, but it perpetuates the notion that a four-year degree is the only entry into the workforce. The reality is, a recent survey conducted by ASA, Jobs for the Future and Morning Consult, showed that 72% of employers do not think that a bachelor’s degree is a reliable signal for assessing the skills of a job candidate, but because they have to no other reliable ways of evaluating a candidate they default to a bachelor’s degree. One solution in our mind is to start with research aimed at assessing how well short-term and non-degree programs achieve student outcomes in job placement and median earnings, as well as how these programs set students up for lifelong learning and future pursuit of additional degrees and/or credentials. Better understanding the quality and value, and helping employers decipher what “good” looks like in something other than a 4-year degree program, is necessary if we are to expand the opportunity for all students to pursue an education that meets their career interests and allow employers to build stronger workforce pipelines.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

In my opinion, leadership is about setting a clear vision and then empowering others to reach that goal. It is not about being involved in every decision and controlling all outcomes, but about setting the North star and then ensuring others have what they need to help get the organization there.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It is okay to not have all the answers. Embrace the fact that you don’t, admit it to others, ask for help, and always be willing to learn. I think a big part of leadership is making sure you can empower your team to do their jobs and be okay with the fact that they may know more than you. With that comes some humility that you might not always be the one with the answer or the best idea, but as a team, you can rely on each other to get to a good end goal.
  2. There is only so much you can control. Do the utmost with those things within your power and let go of everything else.
  3. There is no perfect job, company or opportunity. Everything has its pluses and minuses, but it’s how you react to those downsides that will make the long-term difference, both for your own personal journey and the organization you are a part of. It’s often hard, but you have to take a pause when things aren’t going your way and be willing to see the big picture. Nothing is perfect and you can’t expect it to be.
  4. Be willing to listen, even if there can be no immediate resolution or response to a problem, People want to be heard, and if you have the power to do something to help, it is a leader’s responsibility to try.
  5. There is immense power in saying “Thank You.” This is something my former boss taught everyone on his staff and something I’ve tried to remember. No matter how busy he was, my former boss would send a thank you note for every occasion — no gift went unacknowledged, and no volunteer went without being thanked. There are countless people who still have notes from him for events they helped coordinate or a job well done. While it was not a big effort on his part to take the time to say thank you, the impact on the recipient was immeasurable. So, take the time to say thank you — send a note to a colleague for helping on a project, or write a note to their manager to share your appreciation for their hard work. It takes minimal effort, but means a lot to those that feel their hard work has been acknowledged.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A lot of students are feeling lost right now. The residual impacts of the pandemic — from educational upheaval to mental health strain — have left many students unsure of a path forward. Where does school fit in their lives? Should they go get a job? Is college the right next step? What’s a good reason to stay in high school with everything else they have to deal with? The future looks nothing like they may have envisioned three years ago, and now it’s time to make bold changes to the things that aren’t working and reimagine what needs to be done to prepare students for the future.

What I would love to see is a movement that empowers students to be part of reimagining what their future can look like. One that gives kids agency and a voice in the education decisions and opportunities that shape their lives. We hear time and time and again that kids aren’t prepared to take on the jobs necessary to drive our economy forward, but have we really asked them to try? Have we asked them to develop skills by working to build the education systems that will meet their future needs and goals? Or, have we continued to tell kids what they should want and need, because that’s how it’s always been done? A movement that empowers students and doesn’t discount their opinions because “we know best” could go a long way to helping students build self-advocacy skills, build their confidence, and help better connect them to the educational opportunities crucial for long-term success.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Lucille Ball said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” While I wouldn’t call myself someone that takes big risks, I like to think I try to live my life with no regrets for opportunities missed.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I think at the moment, it has to be Lin-Manuel Miranda. I have always been a big musical theater fan, and I love the poetry in his music. My kids are also now obsessed with Hamilton, and I love that they have developed an interest for history through musical theater. We are listening to a lot of Encanto and Hamilton in our house these days!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Julie Lammers of American Student Assistance (ASA) Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.