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FutureMakers Student Voice Summit addresses educational barriers with student feedback

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Tara Calligan
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A representative from NeoGenomics Laboratories joined the FutureMakers Student Summit to discuss possible career pathways with students. NeoGenomics specializes in cancer genetics diagnostic testing. FutureMakers director Tessa LeSage says that Southwest Florida has a lot to offer in terms of the medical field. "There are a million health care jobs when it comes to nursing, but also all the other things that it takes for a health care system to work, including some of the biomedical research that happens at NeoGenomics who's here with us today," said LeSage.

WATCH: Go behind-the-scenes of the 2022 FutureMakers Student Voice Summit

Janie Vaca, a 10th-grader at Immokalee High School, is attending the FutureMakers Coalition’s Student Voice Summit this year alongside 50 other 9th through 11th grade students from Southwest Florida.

At 15, she is already worried about how she can afford college and feels there is a lack of access to scholarship information at her school.

“In our high school, college and career readiness, that isn't really accessible until you are a senior in high school. I think to kind of, like, relieve the stress off our seniors is to introduce it earlier, like, as early as freshman year,” said Vaca.

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Immokalee High School student Janie Vaca learned about the FutureMakers Student Summit through the Immokalee Foundation. She says she aspires to go to college and become an art teacher. "I've had an amazing art teacher that kind of inspired me. Art is kind of like a way for me to kind of express myself, and I want that option for all students," said Vaca.

The yearly summit works directly with students to discover what challenges they are facing as they prepare for post-secondary education and starting their careers.

Tessa LeSage is director of the FutureMakers Coalition at the Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers. She says the Coalition is focused on transforming and filling in-demand jobs across Southwest Florida.

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Sofie Ortiz is a 10th-grader at North Fort Myers High School and the Sophomore Class President. She adds comments about FAFSA completion rates while in the data room during the FutureMakers Student Voice Summit. Her concerns are about how to pay for college.

The goal is to increase the number of degrees, certificates, and credentials from 42 to 55 percent by 2025 for adults aged 25 to 64. And one way to achieve that is by hearing directly from students.

“We created this event because we firmly believe that the folks who are experiencing the system have to be part of finding the solutions to making that system work better.”

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Tessa LeSage is the director of the FutureMakers Coalition at the Collaboratory. She says FutureMakers is focused on making sure that local school systems are working correctly with a goal to increase the number of skilled workers needed in Southwest Florida. "As adults, not in those systems, not experiencing those systems, sometimes it's really important to go back to the folks that are actually experiencing the system and understanding what they think are the challenges and even more importantly, what are the solutions," said LeSage.

During the summit, students are split into groups and visit various themed rooms. One room lets students explore data from past student summits, another focuses on work/life balance and there are rooms dedicated to discussing educational barriers and allowing time to propose possible solutions.

One room focused on Janie Vaca’s concern, paying for college.

LeSage explains that one solution is educating students about what resources are available in terms of financial aid.

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Local cartoonist Doug MacGregor helps students visualize solutions to any educational barriers they are facing. One aspect he stressed to students was, "don't overwhelm yourself!"

“We leave millions of dollars on the table every year in financial aid," said LeSage. "We need to make sure that our students are taking advantage of that, because we don't want financial issues to be the barrier to a good education.”

According to the Florida Policy Institute, last year, Florida students left more than $304 million in Pell Grants unclaimed. The state also ranks 48th in the U.S. for its FAFSA completion rate.

Sofie Ortiz is a 10th-grader at North Fort Myers High School and is Sophomore Class President. Like Vaca, she is concerned about accruing student loan debt and says her parent’s student debt motivates her to think about financial stability now.

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In the data room, Sofie Ortiz of North Fort Myers High School says looking at how much more money she can make by going to college motivates her to earn a degree. She hopes to get information about other scholarship opportunities during the FutureMakers' Student Voice Summit to avoid student loans.

“That's something that I have to consider," said Ortiz. "How I don't want to be in that. So, I'm working towards getting my 100 hours for Bright Futures. I'm tracking it. I'm going through it and figuring out what can I do to make sure that I'm not in that debt.”

Other issues students shared were a lack of communication from their schools. Jason Teeters is the Nurturing Lead at The Collaboratory and ran the problems room during the Student Voice Summit.

But he says the problems are actually opportunities to share the student experience with community leaders.

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Students look at responses from past students summits and share their feedback to questions about financial aid, going to college and more during the 2022 FutureMakers Student Voice Summit.

“There's some really impactful information that these young people shared today that oftentimes doesn't require a lot of funding and money to move things forward," said Teeters.

"But oftentimes from what I heard from the students, just someone to listen to them and someone to really navigate them and help them think about the best way to pursue their paths and to be motivated in such a way to do that.”

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Jason Teeters ran the problems room during the Student Voice Summit. "It's now on us to make sure that every student that's here today, this school year, and the following school years, we start to move forward with supporting them in ways that they've expressed today that they really wish they had or wish they have more of to be able to move forward in their own career," said Teeters.

Data from this year’s FutureMakers Coalition Students Voice Summit will be shared during the coalition's Breakfast of Champions on Thursday, September 15, bringing the students' voices directly to the community leaders who can help make changes for a better future.

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