There is no shortage of ambition at Citizen Schools.
Students in this afterschool program at Albemarle Road Middle School dream of becoming doctors, writers, thespians and models. Eastway and Martin Luther King Jr. middle schools' programs focus on similar pursuits.
What's lacking for many of Citizen Schools' 90 bright-eyed Charlotte participants is a group of savvy family members and friends to help them find the path to their dreams. The program's Eighth Grade Academy is teaching these high-school-bound students how to fill the void.
The academy's staff and volunteers have organized more than 20 professionals, called connectors, who have agreed to share their own network of friends and co-workers.
“I think that there's probably nothing more valuable than who you know,” said Jamie Rodway, a marketing executive for NASCAR's Roush Fenway Racing.
Citizen Schools is a national program founded in 1995 that teaches life skills through hands-on learning projects in seven states. Through a learning project called Six Degrees of Separation, Rodway and other connectors share contacts with students.
The premise for Six Degrees of Separation is borrowed from a movie with the same name. It supposes that any two people can be connected through five other people – each person being one degree of separation.
So a friend of a friend of a friend might be the person to change your life.
“People can be part-time educators and form a second shift of educators,” said Kisha Payton, Citizen Schools' national civic engagement manager.
Connectors also can help students create a network for career advancement.
On Monday, participants at Albemarle Road prepared for the event by writing letters to invite people in their circle to attend. They've asked those people to invite others.
Toby Rajkumar decided after an in-class personality assessment that he wants to be a thoracic surgeon. “I looked at the job, and it just felt right,” he said. “I wanted to be that person.”
Toby doesn't know any physicians personally, so he invited his two sisters. One is a biology major at Appalachian State University.
Zahra Reid is nearly a straight-A student who shows a natural capacity for leadership. At this point, she sees herself becoming a neurologist, a cosmetologist or a singer.
Before making a decision, she'd like to talk to a physician. She wants to know about one specific aspect of the job.
“When you save a person's life, how good does it make you feel?” she said.