Cliona O’Geran - Fierce Commitment for 17 Years
Cliona O’Geran is soft spoken and unassuming, but her commitment to Bridge to Employment (BTE) is fierce. J&J’s Cork, Ireland, site was the first to launch a BTE program outside the United States in 2005. A leader of the BTE Cork site, Cliona’s passion is to support long-term collaboration and partnership amongst business, educators, community-based organization, and parents to help young people from disadvantaged areas to build a better future.
Cliona began as a mentor to Matt Mitianiec from North Monastery Secondary School after receiving volunteer training and has not looked back. She later joined the BTE management committee and now she is the chair of the BTE committee and the lead for the three J&J companies in Cork. Cliona has also increased her volunteer work by leading the Campus Ireland Youth Pillar for J&J’s Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing and Design program (WiSTEM2D), aimed at bringing awareness of STEM careers to young women and girls.
“It’s really a family affair”, she says of BTE. “We’ve only lost one (committee ) member in 17 years. Everyone believes and is so passionate about the program and our partnerships.” It is all voluntary and is comprised of three partnered schools, third level partners, community partners, and the three J&J sites.
How it works
The core concept of BTE is to promote third level education for underserved students, and to increase the number of youth who continue in education with a focus in pursuing careers in STEM2D.
The numerous J&J volunteers like Cliona over the years mentor the students, arrange for site visits, and organize and support educational activities with three DEIS secondary schools. Delivering Equality of Opportunity In Schools (DEIS) is an initiative of the Irish Department of Education aimed at lessening educational disadvantage and bringing about social inclusion in primary and secondary level education in low socio-economic communities. DEIS is about supporting inclusion and prioritizing the educational needs of students. The three participating schools in BTE Cork are Mayfield Community School, North Monastery Secondary School (North Mon), and Terence MacSwiney. Cliona says, “BTE exposes kids to various career paths they never thought would be available to them. We are lucky as an organization that we can promote STEM and diverse careers.” Through the use of local partnerships, students learn about university life, meet J&J professionals, receive mentorship, and pursue work placements, such as internships, which enhance their college and career readiness. A few receive scholarships to help with tuition and school fees. Among the partners is Junior Achievement Worldwide, which provides volunteer training around mentoring. Access officers from three local colleges – University College Cork (UCC), Munster Technological University (MTU), and Colleges of Further Education – help organize career fairs and share tips on navigating college life. On the corporate side there are three J&J companies – Janssen Pharmaceutical, Janssen Sciences, and DePuy Synthes – that recruit employee volunteers and mentors, host lab and site visits, and sponsor afterschool activities. The 3D printing demos, for example, at DePuy Synthesis are extremely popular, as are Apprentice career talks.
Special and unexpected moments
Cliona says that once, she got into a wet suit at an adventure center with the students, and another time, some drum playing at a hotel attracted the attention of management! Most of all, she says, “is keeping up the contact with the students that have gone through the program.” Her original student, Matt, phoned her from Australia to share the joy of his recent engagement and told her how much she had changed his life!
BTE’s local impact is significant. Once, it was short listed for a Chamber Ireland Community Award, in which our BTE committee and a few students were invited to attend a black-tie evening event in Dublin. The students were buzzing. “Where do I get a black suit?” they asked. She reflected it was a fantastic opportunity for the students, their teachers, and the general manager of the company to gain this visibility.
Benefits to her as a J&J employee
“It developed my career a lot,” Cliona shares. The visibility of BTE in Cork has given her exposure to senior level people in the company, built up her network, and “I’ve (also) made some wonderful friends.” She has earned the confidence to lead the Youth Pillar for Campus Ireland for WISTEM2D. BTE has taken her to London and Lisbon for the annual Alliance Building and Training Session as well as given her speaking opportunities to share best practices with the newer BTE sites.
The J&J organizers faced a decision when the initial three-year pilot grant expired: to continue with their own funding or shutter the program. “It was a no brainier to continue,” Cliona says. The three companies supported it. The bursaries (scholarships) continued. They continue to fund some activities and workshops during the year. What they gain from the program – publicity, employee satisfaction, connections and networks with college and schools – is of significant importance internally and for the community. She says there is a huge advantage for the students to have had the association with their sites since the employer (J&J) is so prominent locally.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, then J&J should feel honored. Another company in Dublin has approached Janssen to do a similar program to BTE. “It is a great compliment to the company to receive that.”
Impact on students, families
Cliona says she has noticed over and over again that BTE makes the participants try harder; they gain confidence; they learn to believe in themselves.
“The legacy is the students, really, isn’t it?” She continues, “We had one student to go on to study law. He was the first person to go to university (in his family), let alone to study law.” BTE, by providing site tours, opens up the eyes of the parents to help them see the opportunities for their children. “We have had two students working in our sites, one as Quality Control Analyst and the other in the Finance Department.”
In the end, Cliona radiates with passion and pride, “It’s a very rewarding program.”