D Kevin McNeirEducation

Miami Youth Expand their Skills in New Virtual Learning Environment

URGENT, Inc. Continues Mission of Empowering Youth to Transform Communities

Just one year ago, the Miami-based youth and community development corporation, URGENT, Inc., achieved a significant milestone marking 25 years of successfully empowering young minds with the skills needed to transform their communities.

But last spring, as the organization’s CEO Saliha Nelson prepared to welcome the next crop of talented youth for a highly-competitive summer internship program, neither she or her capable team could have anticipated the need to suddenly revise their teaching strategy due to the impact of a global health pandemic – COVID-19.

However, with the recent completion of a highly-competitive, seven-week Film Arts Culture Entrepreneurship (FACE) program for 30 high school students, URGENT, Inc.’s staff has illustrated that today’s newest approach to education, virtual learning, can be successfully conducted to yield impressive results.

“Our goal remained the same as in past summers — to make it an engaging, fun and valuable learning experience for youth — one in which they could learn lifelong skills, form meaningful relationships with instructors and peers and ultimately create dynamic multimedia content despite the format shifting from the traditional in-person environment to a remote-online virtual internship opportunity,” Nelson said.

These students, all cohorts assigned to the digital media track in URGENT, Inc.’s summer internship program, discovered that learning, while sometimes challenging, can still be fun despite being conducted virtually. (Courtesy of URGENT, Inc.)
These students, all cohorts assigned to the digital media track in URGENT, Inc.’s summer internship program, discovered that learning, while sometimes challenging, can still be fun despite being conducted virtually. (Courtesy of URGENT, Inc.)

Interns were assigned to one-of-three training cohorts: social entrepreneurship, social media or digital media. Assignments, based on their interests and career goals, also challenged youth to step outside of their comfort zones and explore their perceptions, attitudes and reactions when trying something new.

Each day consisted of live instruction, independent and small group work. Daily submissions of work product were required to substantiate work hours with instructors, who were easily-accessible for needed assistance. At the end of each week, youth presented their learning and demonstrated new skills in front of peers, instructors and special guests. The culmination of the interns resulted in showcased work at Urgent’s Youth Economic Development Conference and Miami 4 Social Change Film Festival, both held virtually as a result of COVID-19.

Virtual Environment Makes Each Day a New Adventure

Nelson admits that while significant challenges had to be overcome with instruction moving from the traditional in-person model to the new virtual classroom, early preparation and flexibility proved essential to positive outcomes.

“We quickly realized that there were competing demands from their home as interns had to manage home and work life just like the rest of us who were now working from home,” she said. “Additionally, there were inevitably problems with internet connectivity or other technical device issues. Even our staff had to practice and then constantly improve their skills related to using new online tools from Zoom to Google Classroom, for example.”

“Teaching online creates new levels of accountability and preparation — you can’t improvise when you’re providing on-line instruction. There is no such thing as downtime. You have to be ready to go, especially because feedback loops occur instantaneously. Bottom line — we ensured that our interns learned by doing, keeping with a fundamental philosophy of the organization. They were actively engaged and learned through goal-directed experience. In fact, our employment of a project-based learning framework tends to set us apart from others who could be viewed as our competitors,” Nelson said.

Fortuitously, Nelson completed a course in remote learning and learned best practices just before the unprecedented onset of the coronavirus pandemic and shared her experiences with staff. Four primary instructors, a media apprentice and five industry professional trainers, led by Joey Ashley, the program’s lead career and technical educational coordinator, facilitated hands-on learning opportunities for youth geared toward better preparing them for future jobs and eventual careers.

“Some believed [virtual learning] would make for difficult adjustments but I took it as a creative process requiring the entire team to become problem solvers,” he said. “With everything being done digitally – that is with cell phones, laptops and computers – we knew we’d have to come up with new and creative ways to make learning both fun and engaging. The biggest challenge remained how to help youth access unique forms of creativity while being isolated and forced to remain in one space.”

Interns Make the Most of Working Alone 

Two of the summer interns, Daniel Coffy, a senior, and Wood Nicolas, a junior — both 17 and students at Miami’s Turner Tech High School — recalled how virtual learning impacted their experiences in the program’s digital media track.

“I’m interested in creating skits and short films for children over 13 on YouTube so my goal was to improve my skills in production,” Daniel said. “Doing everything myself without the benefit of being able to rely on others when I needed help wasn’t easy but I remained focused so I could do my best on my final project – a PSA that raised awareness about depression in the Black community. With COVID-19 and the issues being raised by the Black Lives Matter Movement, it’s clear that we’re targets in society and that depression has no age limits on who it attacks.”

“It took a while to adjust to virtual learning, but it got easier as time went on,” Wood said whose project focused on video editing and points to her dream of becoming a physician. “I didn’t like being in the house so much and unable to go out and do things with my friends like dancing, going to the movies or participating in devotion. But I had great instructors who helped me overcome the anxiety of being alone. I’ve become more outspoken and more confident.”

“Even though I worked alone a lot I also found ways to work with the other interns and we supported one another. Virtual learning taught me that you have to be willing to work on your own and find ways to motivate yourself.”

Funders See Long-Term Benefits Due to Support 

Quality education comes with a hefty price tag but URGENT, Inc. was fortunate to secure the needed financial support for this year’s summer internship due to the generosity of several sources including one significant funder, The Children’s Trust, along with matching funds contributed by The Miami Foundation, and Adobe Taking IT Global.

Stephanie Sylvestre, chief programs officer for The Children’s Trust, says she’s an ardent advocate of internships because they provide opportunities for youth to gain real-world exposure without the stress of the high stakes which often come when goals are not achieved.

“Internships are a great way for children to gain experience as self-starters and to become more productive,” she said. “Youth have the opportunity to take advantage of the support and guidance of their managers or instructors while also learning how to hold themselves accountable. No one is walking by their desk to check on their progress or holding their hands. That’s the way of the future and how young people can become better prepared for the new world and its ever-changing technology.”

“COVID-19 has lowered the barrier for entry for youth in cities like where transportation has sometimes proven to be a hindrance for many otherwise qualified candidates. With virtual learning, it doesn’t matter where you live.”

“Reviewing the summer and the accomplishments of the interns, we’re very pleased. We’re absolutely committed to continuing our financial support for URGENT, Inc. and are also engaged in bringing new partners on board as additional funding sources.”

“You can’t help but be impressed with the work that Saliha [Nelson] and her team continue to cook up for the youth in our community,” Sylvestre added.

For more information about URGENT, Inc., visit www.urgentinc.org or follow them on IG, Facebook or Twitter @urgenitnc. 

Saliha Nelson contributed to this article. She is an experienced nonprofit CEO, youth development practitioner, community coalition builder and trained community psychologist dedicated to addressing pressing social and community issues. She has completed a Master of Science in Education from the University of Miami. To follow her work or learn more about her, visit https://www.linkedin.com/in/salihanelson/.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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