It was a bit humbling to meet an 18-year-old who seems to have their life way more together than I do at age 40. On the other hand, have you ever met a young person who gives you a new hope for the future of your community? Humbling moment aside, it’s a positive experience.
I’d like to tell you about a young lady named Bianca Jimenez-Ortiz and why she gives me that kind of hope. Bianca is in her freshman year at Grace College in an accelerated pre-law program. She is on the mediation team, which is kind of like debate team but for future lawyers to practice arguing all sides of different cases. That team, based on my reading of their recent competition results, is quite good. She is very committed to getting her law degree, and she got her start in the law as an apprentice working in our county prosecutor’s office … as a senior at Concord High School in Elkhart.
How many people do you know who worked in a legal setting like that before they graduated high school? I’ll guess it’s not many, because Bianca was the first person we know of in the entire country to participate in a paralegal youth apprenticeship, and she did it through HEA’s youth apprenticeship program called CareerWise Elkhart County.
“It was a little bit intimidating, but once I started [my apprenticeship], it was one of those things where I knew, ‘this is where I’m supposed to be,’” she said.
HEA started the CareerWise Elkhart County program back in 2019. It’s based on a model of “modern youth apprenticeship” developed by CareerWise, a Denver-based nonprofit, and inspired by the educational models in a few European countries like Switzerland, where about two-thirds of kids Bianca’s age participate in an apprenticeship to gain on-the-job experience and skills in connection with their classroom lessons.
The idea behind modern youth apprenticeship is one that has a lot of resonance in Elkhart County, where manufacturing has been so core to our workforce for so long: Not everybody wants or needs a college degree to have a successful career. Even for those who do want to go to college, the opportunity to integrate classroom learning with professional skill-building is something that gives a young person a huge head start in their chosen career or area of study. These apprenticeships are set up like academic courses – except that they are at the workplace – with key milestones for skills development and mastery, and on top of that, students are paid as an employee while they complete up to three years of work-based learning.
A successful apprenticeship is the result of a lot of close collaboration between schools, teachers, counselors, employers, students, and their families. And each apprenticeship is approved by the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure these young people get proper instruction and aren’t exposed to unsafe work environments. Our team worked with the office of Elkhart County’s prosecuting attorney, Vicki Becker, to develop a paralegal apprenticeship program for students to contribute meaningfully to the work of the prosecutor’s office in a way most aspiring lawyers wouldn’t get the chance to do until many years into their college education.
Bianca was the first to take advantage of that opportunity.
“This apprenticeship gives Bianca the opportunity to apply real-world experiences and knowledge to the work at hand,” Becker said. “What she has been learning, and the work product she has been producing, is at a level that far surpasses any other high school opportunity we’ve seen so far.”
Bianca and her brothers and parents (and dogs and cats) live in a quiet subdivision. Her parents own a restaurant, Sergio’s Cafe, and she often pitches in there, working shifts as a server and helping with the family business. Her parents were born in Mexico and emigrated here to build a new life and start a family many years ago, like so many of our friends and neighbors here. It’s a pretty normal American life, in so many ways.
Bianca is working hard to make her goals come true. At Grace College, she is taking an accelerated courseload to finish her pre-law program in just two years. She continues to put in hours on Fridays at the prosecutor’s office. And the work is already paying off as she rockets toward her future: she will have a letter of recommendation for law school from the county prosecutor.
Bianca is impressive in that way that driven, motivated people of any age are. When you talk to her about her plans for the future, you get a very focused image: She wants to get her law degree, she wants to practice law in a way that helps this community, and she wants to have a long career as a politician, representing this community – her home – as far up the road to the White House as she possibly can. When she says things like “I want to be a United States Senator,” it’s easy to believe she’ll get there!
“This program helped me get a full ride to college, it is going to help me go to law school and pass the bar and come back to this community,” she said about her CareerWise apprenticeship. “This community has given me so much, it’s only right that I give back.”
Bianca’s story is one of many from the first 10 years of Horizon Education Alliance in Elkhart County. Watch our 10th Anniversary celebration video, featuring Bianca’s story, below.
By Andrew Hershberger
Director of Communications and Marketing, HEA