On College Success: Five questions with Rafael Alvarez, Genesys Works

February 27, 2018


Read full article on msdf.org here.

This is a blog series focused on how the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation approaches college success work. You will hear from our partners who work each day to help students improve academically, complete rigorous curricula, and cross financial hurdles. One of our partners, Genesys Works, provides pathways to career success for students starting in high school, by providing skills training, meaningful work experiences, and impactful relationships. Students who graduate and go on to college are able to use these skills in internships and throughout their college and professional careers. We talked with Rafael Alvarez, Founder & CEO of Genesys Works, about our guiding principle in college success work: The right assistance at the right time can help students get into college, stay in college and graduate. You can read the whole series here.

How did you get involved in education?
I was a corporate strategist working for a large corporation while also serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations that served youth. As a board member, I noticed the students we were trying to serve finished high school, but didn’t pursue a career path with which they could earn a livable wage. At a graduation ceremony, I talked to students and realized that they didn’t know what they were capable of accomplishing. It was at that ceremony that I came up with the idea to train students to work in a meaningful internship during their senior year of high school. And if they did that and provided services and value to a company, two things would happen. First, the students would experience success as a young professional and that would impact decisions they would make in their senior year of high school. Second, we could charge the companies for the services students provided, and with that earned income, we could fund the organization.

And that’s how Genesys Works came to be! Tell us more about the program.
Genesys Works provides students in underserved communities with eight weeks of workplace skills training the summer before the senior year of high school, followed by a year-round paid internship doing meaningful work companies really value. We also provide students with college and career counseling.

I ran into a former student in the airport a few months ago and his story is a perfect example of the impact we can have. Joel was in the program ten years ago. Through Genesys Works, Joel was trained in IT skills and was placed in an internship at NASA, configuring computers to run experiments in the International Space Station. With our help, Joel applied for and was awarded a number of scholarships, including the prestigious Gates’ Millennium Scholarship, providing him a full ride through college. He earned his undergraduate degree and eventually completed an online graduate program in business. When I saw Joel at the airport, he was traveling to give a presentation to the president of a billion-dollar company. I was so impressed at all he had achieved by age 28, but not surprised, as many of our alumni have gone on to have successful careers.

Tell us how you started Genesys Works. What are some of the challenges you are facing as you continue to grow?
We’ve been growing rapidly over the past 15 years. Genesys Works now serves approximately 3,000 students a year in our five sites around the country. When we started 15 years ago, we never imagined that we could help so many students change the trajectory of their lives. In fact, if you had told me our measure for success would be to achieve this level of impact and complexity, I would have told you to get someone more qualified to lead the organization! I started Genesys Works because I knew I could change the lives of at least a dozen students. And then it became two dozen. Then three dozen. Then a hundred. We started out with small, achievable goals. Once we learned the model really worked, we grew much faster and now we’re on track to truly scale our impact in the years to come.

Every year brings about a different set of challenges and opportunities. When you know your work changes the lives of people and the communities in which they live, it becomes our responsibility as leaders to see how we can serve more individuals, more effectively. It’s that desire, that drive, that motivates us to do more. We see the opportunity that exists and we’ve only achieved a fraction of what’s possible. That constant pursuit of impact and growth is what keeps me going.

What’s your vision for scaling the kind of work you do across the education space?
I’m optimistic about the future for students we serve – students like Joel. When I see the impact we’re having students lives, it fuels my desire to do more. But, when I think about the scale required to address the problem we’re trying to solve, I realize it’s going to take a lot more of us, working together, to truly make an impact.

We can’t create real, sustained impact in people’s lives without deeper intervention. It’s incumbent upon us to discover how to grow our programs more efficiently and effectively. That’s the challenge we’re hoping to address in the next five years. We believe that if we continue to grow our core program, serving more students in our existing sites and expanding into new communities, we can achieve even greater levels of growth and impact. But to move beyond our core program and catalyze true systems change, we need to think differently about how we approach our work. This may include expanding the career pathways we offer, extending our support through college and/or into careers, and addressing workforce readiness issues on a national level through increased advocacy efforts.

What’s your message to others working in college completion?
The problem with increasing college access without supporting college completion is that many times students are in a worse position than having not gone to college at all. Students who don’t complete college incur student debt but don’t have credentials that can justify their time in, and expense of, college. They can’t get a job that can lift and keep them out of poverty. Our sector needs to provide students with in-demand job skills that will help them succeed in the workplace with or without a college degree.

To others in this field, I ask those who can get every one of their students to finish college successfully to show us how to do it. That is ideal. For the rest of us, we have to ask ourselves what we are doing for the student who is not succeeding in college. By embracing multiple pathways to the economic mainstream, we can begin to realize our vision of all students graduating from high school equipped and empowered to achieve career success and a lifetime of economic self-sufficiency.

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