Navigating through high school, SATs, internships, college applications, interviews and college can be overwhelming for anyone, but if you are in one of the many underserved communities around the world it almost seems like an impossible journey. To help make this journey seem more possible, in more than 90 communities globally, Johnson & Johnson’s Bridge to Employment (BTE) program brings unique opportunities to high school students. Jose Hernandez Morales considers himself lucky that his high school and college journeys included the BTE program and Pathway to Success initiative.
Johnson & Johnson (J&J) partners with FHI 360’s National Institute for Work and Learning (NIWL) on the BTE program, which works with 14-to-18-year-old students in underserved communities across the globe and provides students with real-world experiences that increase their academic knowledge and awareness of college and careers. The program also connects them with mentors and provides activities that promote their overall personal and professional growth and development.
Back in 2013, Jose was a freshman at the New Brunswick Health Sciences Technology High School in New Brunswick, New Jersey when he first learned about BTE. Initially, he was not convinced the program was right for him and he had doubts about applying. But Jose had great friends that believed in him and encouraged him to apply and he thought “why not, a program that essentially prepared me to be a professional and prepared me academically to succeed, to become a professional” was an opportunity he needed to take. Jose attended a BTE recruitment seminar, applied to the program later that year, and was selected from a competitive group of applicants to the 2014 BTE New Brunswick cohort, which began his sophomore year.
Jose’s first official BTE activity was an ice cream social. Though not just any social, it was set up as a spin-off of a speed-dating event – a round-robin, rapid question situation – designed for students to meet and select mentors. Going into that event Jose’s ideal of a mentor was one that was really empathetic and understanding of other people’s situations. Oscar Morera, former Johnson & Johnson Head, Operations, Consumer Health & Wellness, was attending the ice-cream social as a J&J volunteer and had similar thoughts on what made a good mentor and mentee relationship; he thought the relationship was a two-way learning street.
After one round of mentor speed-dating Jose chose Oscar as his mentor; it was then that Oscar shared his first life lesson to his new mentee – that everyone needs grit, that it is okay to fall down and to fail, but it is not okay to stay there; you need to have grit to get back up. That first BTE meeting started their professional mentor and mentee relationship that later turned into a lasting friendship.
Over the next three years, Jose and Oscar attended countless BTE workshops and college and career awareness activities. Jose’s BTE New Brunswick cohort was provided SAT prep classes on Saturdays throughout the school year. Jose freely admits that he, “dreaded getting up early on Saturdays [for SAT prep class],” but in his heart, he knows he would do it again. Despite sacrificing half of his weekend, his efforts paid off as his overall score improved.
In addition to the SAT prep classes, Jose’s BTE cohort provided monthly workshops on life skills and professional development. As a high school junior, he thought when am I going to use these skills? As a junior in college now, Jose credits some of those workshops as being the foundation for helping guide him on his journey. Jose frequently uses the skills he learned in three workshops: Time Management, Financial Literacy, and Effective Study Skills.
Through all of these BTE activities and everyday life events, Jose and Oscar continued to build their mentor and mentee relationship, one that allowed open conversations without fear of judgement. Jose describes Oscar as, “a diary that actually talks back to you and gives you advice!” Jose knew he had a unique mentor in Oscar since he was encouraged to learn from the other mentors in his cohort. Because of that Jose was able to build a wide network of mentors through the BTE program and beyond.
It was Oscar and his BTE family that Jose turned to when it came time for him to think about college. Being the first in his family to attend college, this was a major milestone. Oscar worked with Jose on his college personal statement and they scoured SAT resources together. After getting a stellar SAT score, Jose applied and was accepted to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey’s School of Engineering, to major in Biomedical Engineering. He credits this incredible achievement to the BTE opportunities, his extended BTE family and Oscar for teaching him to have the grit to get back up.
At this point, Jose has graduated class Salutatorian from high school, has been accepted into Rutgers and completed his Bridge to Employment program. The next part of his journey was about to begin – his college career. The pressure of freshmen classes, finding resources, studying and making new friends was overwhelming. During this hectic time, Jose received new information from J&J. As usual, with so much change in his life’s journey, Jose turned to Oscar.
Jose talked to Oscar about a Pathway to Success initiative. J&J had created and launched a pilot initiative as a college retention program to support graduates from the BTE program as they transition to an institution of higher education, and later, their professional career. This includes online forums, winter seminars, summer academies and bootcamps, competitive internships, as well as officially continuing mentoring support.
Jose was excited to connect back with all his mentors and extended J&J family. During his first summer he was a part of a Pathways team that made projects for Women in STEM2D (WiSTEM2D). During this time, he also engaged in job shadowing experiences at J&J and learned of roles and positions he never even knew existed. The summer after his sophomore year he spent in Raynham, Massachusetts with J&J where he worked on medical equipment and participated in a clinical experience that solidified his decision of a career in biomedical engineering. Not only did Jose expand his network and professional profile within J&J thru this experience, but a mentor from his BTE days went the extra mile to put him in touch with a family member to ensure Jose had convenient and affordable housing during his out-of-state internship experience. The program really took the meaning of family full circle.
This journey was eye-opening for Jose. He knows he was fortunate to have been selected to the BTE program, but it is the Pathway to Success initiative he feels is something he can never repay. Reflecting on his freshman year of college Jose said, “I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had to fight for everything. But creating the [Pathways] initiative allowed us not to have to fight anymore. Johnson & Johnson and the support family from BTE knew me and they knew my potential. And I want to thank Michael B. [Bzdak] and everyone else who started the Pathways initiative.” Just as he did as a BTE participant, Jose has embraced every opportunity presented to him through Pathways to live up to that potential.
It is this sense of family and giving back that is a large part of both programs; Bridge to Employment and Pathway to Success. Following in all of his mentors’ footsteps, Jose also became a mentor himself. He facilitated a Mexican art exhibit at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University to help his community celebrate his culture. In the future, he wants to expand upon this and help create more spaces where artists can display their artwork with other artists. He also plans to mentor at a local elementary school where he will host a WiSTEM2D workshop using the same activity he learned during his Pathway to Success summer experience. He commits himself to giving back to his BTE family by talking to new cohorts and sharing his experiences and life’s journey. Jose’s continued presence in the Pathway to Success program and his current active engagement as a BTE alumnus is a daily reminder of the compassion, drive, resilience, and grit BTE youth around the globe encompass and can build upon with the support of their BTE program networks, FHI 360, dedicated J&J mentors, and the communities in which they live and work.