There’s a lot of opportunity for Trumbull’s youth after its high school days are over.

That’s the message Superintendent Gary Cialfi, the Board of Education, the Trumbull Business-Education Initiative, and the Trumbull ACE Foundation want every student to take away from the third annual College and Career Readiness for Success Forum.

And this year, instead of hearing it from educators, Trumbull students will engage in a conversation with their peers about what lies beyond the walls of Trumbull High School.

“Instead of presentations, we’re going to have an open forum with panelists who are both current students and alumni,” said Dan Neumann, executive director of the Trumbull BEI and member of the ACE Foundation. “These panelists can give their unique perspective to every question that’s asked. Some will have relevant experience to a certain topic, and that means they will be able to respond in a very personal manner, which we haven’t had before.”

The forum, which is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at the high school Wednesday, Jan. 6, will emphasize the importance of strengthening communication skills, developing critical thinking patterns, and working collaboratively to solve problems, according to Superintendent Gary Cialfi.

However, what’s most valuable about this year’s event, which is open to the public, is that the panel is offering insights to any path a student might be interested in after graduating.

“One of our panel members didn’t even go to college,” explained Dr. Cialfi, who will be moderating the discussion. “He took entrepreneur classes while at the high school with his eyes set on taking over his dad’s business, and he’s going to talk about what he’s doing now to make that goal a reality.

“There are many paths to success,” the superintendent added.

Neumann agreed, acknowledging that last year’s forum — the first one to ever take place at night — was challenged with the perception it was only for “high-flying overachievers.”

“Opportunities are open to all students who are willing to experiment and work hard,” he said.

“Nobody’s just average if you work hard,” he added. “By working hard and giving, you rise above the pack and stick out.”

Benefits

Neumann and Cialfi see plenty of positives in bumping the forum up two weeks earlier to include alumni on this year’s panel, which will feature four current students and four recent graduates.

“Last year it was too late — lots of graduates were already back in college,” Cialfi recalled. “This time around, I think it’ll be a lot more efficient and we’ll get a lot more responses from both the students and panelists.”

After keynote speakers Dr. Donald Gibson and Tom Tesoro deliver their opening presentations, there will be an extended back-and-forth period when panelists can answer questions from the audience.

Gibson, the dean of the Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University, and Tesoro, the human resource officer at Standard Motor Products, will talk about what they look for when they accept or hire a high school student.

“And what they’ll reinforce is that it’s not just adequate to get into the school or get the job, but what a young person needs to be successful at the institution or business,” said Neumann.

The gap

One of the things that’s difficult about the forum is trying to explain the gap between middle school and high school to eighth graders who are in the audience with their parents.

“You don’t know what the high school is truly like until you’re there, in the building,” Neumann explained. ‘It’s something you don’t know about until you can experience it firsthand.”

Nonetheless, the organizers encourage middle schoolers and their parents to return to the forum as they did last year.

“It’s great for them to get the exposure to current high school students and recent graduates,” Cialfi said. “There’s so much available — so much that they have questions about — that it’s a challenge to cover it all in one meeting with everything else going on, but the goal remains the same for all students of any age: How can we make sure that we’re preparing them for success in higher education endeavors?”

Exploration

Why the gap is so hard to solve directly correlates to the individual experiences high schoolers can have that middle school students aren’t able to explore until they’re freshmen or older.

Some of those avenues of exploration include the high school’s mock trial teams and its We the People team.

Cialfi and Neumann are quick to remember a student named Molly Stewart who was taking Eric August’s justice and law class as a junior a few years ago.

“She talked to Eric, her teacher, and made it very clear she didn’t see the point in her being part of his mock trial team because she didn’t want to be a lawyer,” Cialfi recalled. “She was committed to going into medicine of some kind, but she stuck through it and ended up becoming very interested in law and now is on her way to becoming a lawyer for medical equipment.

“It was a complete change of direction, but really, all she did was combine interests,” he added. “Now she’s the club president of Fordham’s mock trial team.

“This was a kid who was interested in law at first but she explored it and found a passion.”

Molly’s just one example.

The educators said they’ve seen dozens of high schoolers who are heading toward a career in math and science but never realize the importance of communication skills to get into those respective fields.

“If they want to be engineers, they’re going to need to be able to present in front of town councils and boards of finance in their lifetime,” Cialfi said. “Our goal is to open up their views at a young age and show them we have clubs right here that offer those skill sets, and they might just be something the student finds a new passion in.”

Communication breakdown

Besides dealing with perception issues from students, the top challenge Cialfi and Neumann have to hurdle heading into this event is making sure people aren’t confusing it with the guidance department’s college planning night that usually happens around this time of year.

“College and career readiness is completely different,” Neumann explained. “College planning night is great, but it’s all about the mechanics of applying and getting into college — admission forms, transcripts, recommendations.

“We don’t touch on any of that,” he added. “It’s not the same thing; it’s a different topic.”

Cialfi re-emphasized that the form is not just for “upper echelon students.”

“I think everyone in the school system needs to be there so they can hear more about BEI and ACE and everything they create for our students,” he added.

ACE has 65 teams across the school district, and they’re not all academically competitive.

As for BEI, it offers more than $20,000 in mini grants that help students get exposure to careers in a particular field through career shadowing.

“We’ve been ramping up the job shadowing,” Neumann said. “And thanks to BEI, students in high school can have half- or full-day visits on-site to see if a certain job is for them or not.

“Students can see for themselves what it’s like at that company, whether it’s in finance, research, or manufacturing,” he added. “Do you like that kind of thing? Do you not like it?”

See what it’s like

Going back to Eric August, the education leaders have another great example of why it’s important to explore a career before jumping into it blindly.

The high school teacher got his law degree and was a practicing trial lawyer for three years before he turned around and went back to get a different degree — one that led him to Trumbull.

“He combined his passion for teaching with an interest in law,” Neumann said.

“It’s one of those ‘wish I knew earlier what I learned later’ scenarios,” he added. “I’m sure he wouldn’t have gone to law school had he had known before what it was like to work in a law office.”

Cialfi believes the job shadowing offerings in Trumbull are “a real strength of our district.”

“It makes the career process so much easier,” he said. “Especially if you’re looking at things at such a young age.”

Note: The snow date for the forum is Thursday, Jan. 7 at the same time and place.