Establishing your “Education Network” as a College Student and Young Adult in Philadelphia: An Interview with Elaine Leigh

Posted by on December 14, 2012

By Liz Shriver and Elaine Leigh

Getting jobs is increasingly challenging and as a young college student or recent graduate and if you’re interested in working with youth, finding your place in the ever changing education landscape can be difficult. One of the most challenging pieces of this can be finding your voice as a leader. Through my work with many universities in Philadelphia I have seen how some students are given constant messages that they are “young leaders” who can change the world and that some students are rarely given that message or the support to make their academic skills come to life in the real world. Additionally, I have seen that college students are stuck in a vacuum of what their campus offers, even if they are directly located in the heart of Philadelphia. Reaching out to the “community” and the wider world of networking and learning opportunities can be extremely intimidating. However, often all young adults need is a little push out the door.

I conducted this interview with Elaine Leigh, Director of High School Support Services for Steppingstone Scholars Inc., to try and address some of the issues I see young adults face in Philadelphia. As a young leader in the field college access in Philadelphia, Elaine has worked hard to find her own path and set unique goals for herself. In addition to being an active member in the college access community, she currently sits on the Boards of PhilaSoup, SEAMAAC, and the Spruce Foundation and has taken part in several leadership development opportunities including PhillyCORE Leaders, Young Involved Philadelphia’s Board Prep Program and the Center for Progressive Leadership New Leaders program. I asked her some questions about how she forged this path and what helped her along the way…

Q: How can young people get involved in leadership, coalitions for change, networking etc?

A: I think the first step in getting involved is showing up. Go to convening events, interesting talks, or other networking opportunities related to one’s interests. There are lots of burgeoning resources for young professionals in the city (I can’t speak as well to what’s going on at specific campuses), and while it’s getting easier and easier to find different professional development opportunities, you do have to actively look and let others know you are looking.

Q: How do you pick which organizations, coalitions etc. to be a part of? How do you get information about groups/organizations you want to be involved in?

A: Speaking to the four years I’ve been in Philly since graduating college, I both actively looked and had some help in getting connected. I started out teaching through Teach For America–being part of that network in Philly plugged me into various teaching and community resources in the city. I was always looking for opportunities for my students, and being a science teacher, trying to find interesting programs that would bulk up what we were doing in the classroom. Other teachers I worked with were great resources to share not only teaching techniques but also unique community resources–it was built into our culture of not reinventing the wheel and genuinely trying to help each other out as new teachers. I was lucky to have that. But, it also meant actively collecting brochures and flyers at various kinds of events, doing lots of internet searches, signing up for mailing lists, and actually reading those e-mails and taking action!

When I transitioned into the education nonprofit world after teaching, I had some idea of the community resources available to me, but didn’t necessarily have the time to go to evening/weekend events when I was teaching. I had more flexibility at a nonprofit, 9-5 job, to check out what else was going on in the city and pursue some opportunities. The State of Young Philly events were really helpful gateways to learn more about the active “young” community in Philly and learning more about a broad spectrum of organizations even outside of education. Those initial tabling events through YIP helped connect me with the Spruce Foundation, a nonprofit that provides grants to organizations working with at-risk youth and creating the next generation of young philanthropy—a year later, I am now on their Board. I also learned about programs like Urban Blazers, who I ended up partnering with for the summer program I run with Steppingstone Scholars. When you’re thinking about how a person or organization can not only benefit your professional development, but also the work you care about, getting connected feels more natural than just networking for the sake of it.

Q: How did you divide your time between classes, work and your interests and why? Who told you to do it this way?

A: In college, I was always balancing my time between classes, homework, a campus job and other projects/groups of interests. Most of my time revolved around class and work since those were main necessities. I checked out different clubs in freshman and sophomore year, but nothing quite stuck. I kept up to date with departmental and campus-wide happenings, mostly to continue expanding my interests–I wanted to study abroad so I made sure to attend the info sessions about different programs. I loved music and concerts and decided to get involved in the campus radio station. Academically, I knew I needed more research experience and was also planning to graduate from the Honors College so that meant I had to line up opportunities my junior and senior year to do research in socio-cultural psychology (my field of interest) and be involved in that academic community. Again, I had to pay attention with what was going on around me and also ensuring that I was in touch with my interests so I knew what opportunities I wanted to seek out and others that weren’t a good fit at the time.

As a working professional, my interests and career choices have all been related to direct service. However, as I continue learning more about working with students/communities-at-large, I also am very reflective of where my expertise/experience is weak and that’s what drives me to explore and find opportunities that help me develop certain skills. For example, in transitioning to a nonprofit, I realized I needed to know more about nonprofit management/board relations/strategic planning and so signed up for YIP’s Board Prep program. I felt that I was missing a foundation in political advocacy/organizing so I sought out a program that was recommended to me called the Center for Progressive Leadership, which helped me gain some of those skills.

Basically, no one told me to do something a certain way–most of my motivation in seeking out these opportunities and balancing my time between them has been driven on thinking about how I can be a better resource for the students I serve, for their families, and for the community-at-large, and so I always have my eyes and ears out for things that can benefit my work and passions in education.

Q: “Getting in”: How do you reach out and make connections proactively?

A: It really helped feeling like what I did at my job or what the organization I worked for could also be of help to someone else. I knew nobody and had no connections in Philly coming here to teach. Literally. I think it just took showing up, listening carefully, and finding people who had common interests or worked in common settings to start building a network. Like I said before, I’m always looking for programs to partner with or other resources for my students so it helped to talk to people how had mutual interests in projects I might be working on. I’m also lucky to have some good friends who also stay connected in the “young” scene so we look out for each other and keep tabs on different events that may be of interest.

Q: Theory is great, but I’d like to see it in practice! What do you/did you wish your professors would connect you to in college?

A: I wish they had more inter-departmental connections to help students who may have multi-layered interests. For me, it would have been helpful being connected to history, education, and economics professors in addition to my Psych department. However, I don’t necessarily see the role of the professor as connector at college, but a more structured mentoring program to match undergrads with professors would have been nice, especially if you are at a big university like I was.

Q: What are some organizations you would recommend that directly engage young leaders in social issues in Philadelphia?

A: This is a list of organizations (besides PHENND) that I know of or am involved in that support young adult involvement:

  • PhillyCORELeaders: (education-focused)
  • Young Involved Philadelphia:“> (not just education-focused, basic civic engagement in general)
  • The Spruce Foundation: A young philanthropy foundation focused on funding organizations that serving at-risk youth.
  • The Center for Progressive Leadership: A political advocacy training for young professionals working on progressive causes.
  • New Leaders’ Council: Professional training in young professional entrepreneurship and grassroots organizing.
  • Campus Philly: connects college students/graduates to all kinds of PD opportunities.
  • Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce: for young professionals whose organizations are members of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce

For more information about Steppingstone or further questions, please contact:

Elaine Leigh

Director of High School Support Services

Steppingstone Scholars, Inc.

4112 Station St., Unit D | Philadelphia, PA 19127

P: (215) 508-5150 | F: (215) 508-5151| E:[email protected]

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