It was the kind of advice they have heard from their parents -- join a club or a sports team, work hard, learn as much as you can. Because it wasn’t their parents, but former Whittier Tech students who had recently sat where they were sitting, the freshmen listened.
Seven graduates took time off work and college to join Whittier’s Annual Alumni Panel and spend the day talking to the Class of 2020 about how to succeed in high school and beyond. “It was very helpful and eye-opening,” said Brendan Fretz, a freshman from Groveland. That same day, the ninth graders had submitted their choices for the vocational-technical programs they wish to pursue after completing the Freshman Exploratory Program. They were excited and nervous and spending a few hours with the alumni seemed to be the perfect antidote.
“I thought it was pretty cool how they made a point of saying don’t worry about what shop you chose, because you can always change what you want to do.” said Cody Littlefield, a freshman from Haverhill. “They showed us not to stress.”
“They told us to choose a shop we want and not something our friends are in,” said Crystal Jimenez, a freshmen from Haverhill. “This was helpful to me because I feel like a lot of kids chose shops because of their friends.”
“They all said they wouldn’t change their high school choice and that gave me confidence in my choice,” said Hector Milette, a freshmen from Haverhill.
The alumni also made it clear that their vo-tech training made it possible to be successful in many different career paths, not only the ones they were exposed to at Whittier. Aurora Vellante, Class of 2011, studied health occupations at Whittier and earned her C.N.A certificate but decided nursing was not for her. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in clinical exercise science and now works as a research assistant at Salem State College and as a fitness and weightlifting trainer. Billy Pepe, Class of 2014, studied carpentry and is now a business student at Endicott College. At 19, he also opened his own Career Training business, which issues hoisting licenses. Jerome Senior, Class of 2011, also studied carpentry but went on to earn two associate’s degrees and become a firefighter and paramedic in Westbrook, ME. “In carpentry, I got to learn how buildings are built,” he said. “As a firefighter, knowing how they are built could save my life.”
“It was interesting how their backgrounds helped them even though they didn’t go into the field they studied here,” said Arianna Cavallaro, a freshman from Merrimac. “They expanded on it and found other opportunities. It’s inspirational. Now, we can go into our shops feeling confident and thinking about what we might want to do when we graduate.”
Freshmen also learned about the social side of high school. “It was helpful when they told us how much they wished they could to back and change how uptight they were,” said Skyler Shipley, a freshman from Haverhill. “We think high school is this big thing and we have reputations, but we should get out there more and be ourselves.”
Vellante assured them, “It’s okay to be uncomfortable. A lot of us were scared. You’re making big decisions that will cause you to grow up faster. I was timid with my classmates. That’s why I got involved with sports and clubs.”
Pepe reminded the freshmen to pay attention in their academic classes because they need those skills, too. “I would get antsy,” he said. “My mind would be on the clock. Stop thinking about leaving and start thinking about what the teacher is telling you and relate that classroom experience back to your trade. Your academic side is just as important. People want to do business with those who are knowledgeable and can write well.”
He also urged them to be patient with themselves and learn everything they can from their teachers. “The quality of what you do is the most important thing,” he said.”That is a reflection of you and you’re going to build a reputation on it. Take your time, be thorough. If you can establish that trait now it’s a big part of being successful.”
Alumni also stressed the importance of learning how to communicate well. “Being able to speak to others about your ideas is so important,” said Lissangy Rodriguez, Class of 2011, who studied Design and Visual Communications at Whittier and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in marketing while working at a pharmaceutical sales job. “You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you can’t communicate, it’s no good. I use those skills to market myself as a designer and a photographer.”
Moderator Tia Roy, Class of 2011, who is pursuing a masters degree in Higher Education and Student Affiairs at UConn and puts the panel together each year, stressed the advantage vo-tech students have. “Your co-op jobs will build your resume and the fact that you are being trained by professionals with the latest industry technology will put you ahead in your field. It’s the way you act and approach things and solve problems that will set you apart.”
Justin McGuire, Class of 2011, urged the freshmen to take risks to learn new things academically and socially. “No one grows in their comfort zone. High School is full of new experiences. Don’t say ‘no’ as a first response.” He studied carpentry and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UMass and is working on masters there in higher education administration.
Katharine Labrecque, Class of 2011, explained how important it was for her to keep an open mind when her first plan failed. “It’s good to have a plan but keep it loose,” she said. “Leave some wiggle room for the next opportunity. This is your time. What I planned for myself did not work out, but that’s okay. You move forward when things fail.” She earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Development, attended a business course at Harvard, and plans to pursue a master’s degree in Public Administration.
Jerome Senior shared advice he had received while on a carpentry job struggling to carry heavy stock. “One of the guys said to me: ‘the lightest thing you can carry is an education. If you don’t want to be the kid that carries the heavy stuff, get an education.’ That really stuck with me.”
Most importantly, Vellante said, learn to laugh at yourself. “When you’re in carpentry and someone tells you to go get the left-handed screwdriver, you may fall for that.” McGuire added, Even if you do something embarrassing, you can get a good story out of it.”
The freshmen said hearing from the graduates was time well spent. “It’s interesting to hear from past students and what it was like for them when they graduated,” said Hannah Bourque, a freshman from Haverhill. “I learned more about how much experience you can get here, how good they became after being in their shops.”
Other tips alumni offered the freshmen were:
- Visit your guidance counselor and ask for help when you need it.
- Apply for scholarships and take those SAT Prep courses offered at Whittier.
- Follow your passion, even when you don’t see others who look like you.
- It’s okay to change your mind and switch career paths.
- Never give up on yourself
- Understand the connections you make at Whittier will enhance your life. You will always know a plumber, carpenter, electrician and a hair stylist.
- Know that being part of a vo-tech program for 3 ½ years will teach you to work well with others, a key life skill
The panel members were:
Aurora Vellante, Health Occupations, Class of 2011, bachelor's in Clinical Exercise Science from Salem State College, working as research assistant at Salem State and is facility manager and coach BNS Fitness in Salem, MA
Justin McGuire, Carpentry, Class of 2011, Lawrence, working on masters in higher education administration at UMass, bachelors in psychology from UMass
Jerome Senior, Carpentry, Class of 2011, earned two Associate's Degrees, employed as firefighter and paramedic in Westbrook, ME, pursuing education to be a fire instructor.
Lissangy Rodriguez, Design and Visual Communications, Class of 2012, Associate’s Degree from NECC, pursuing a bachelor's degree i Marketing at UMass Lowell, works as inside sales rep for Summit Diagnostics, a pharmaceutical company in Salem, NH.
William Pepe, student at Endicott College pursuing entrepreneurship studies, started own business at age 19, W.C. Pepe Career Training, works with Mass. Dept of Public Safety on training for hoisting licenses
Katharine Labrecque, CAD, Class of 2011, earned bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Development, attended business course at Harvard, will pursue masters in Public Administration
Moderator Tia Roy, Health Occupations, Class of 2011, Haverhill, earned bachelor's degree in Psychology from Merrimack College. Studying Higher Education and Student Affairs at UCONN, will graduate in May.