Chesapeake Career Center

I’ve never felt quite as guilty leaving a school as I did one day last Fall heading out from Chesapeake Career Center. I had been working with a group of afternoon (they do a morning and afternoon sessions) dental assistant students and it’s fair to say that our discussion in class had taken a turn. What had begun as a fairly standard question in our Life Work Portfolio course—What would you like your life to look like at 30 years old?—had suddenly been cause for panic. 

This group was a fun group from the start, and they had pretty big ambitions. Jaylen Clemons stood out for his desire to live in a lofty penthouse style apartment in Las Vegas while he raked in the money doing cosmetic dentistry, and because of his interesting plan I pulled up on their smartboard. “All right guys,” I said, “let’s see if this is going to work out for his budget knowing what he’s expecting to make each month vs. how pricey this style of living is.” It’s a fun thing to do in classes, if I feel like they are with me, because so many of them don’t really have a good grasp on real-world prices for their dream homes or locations. 

In Jaylen’s case, it worked out. As a cosmetic dentist he is going to make a pretty decent income and if he wants that loft apartment, so be it. But of course, he knew it wasn’t going to be the high life for the many years he’d be putting himself through school—that was the trade-off. Our scenario sparked other interest and one student that didn’t want the glamorous life in Las Vegas asked how much it would cost to live in her desired area. We looked. It wasn’t too bad, but it incited many, many questions.

Kay Smith was the first to ask, “what’s that whole credit rating thing?” and how it could affect their chances of housing.  So, I tried to explain “good credit” and the need to establish it as an adult while simultaneously advising strongly against being taken in by all the tempting “free” cards they will suddenly find themselves pre-approved for when they get into college and/or start working.  As we talked, their eyes were getting wider and wider and Kay wasn’t going to be satisfied with my assurances that she’d be OK so long as she kept asking these types of questions. She was still worried, and questions were still coming. 

“What happens if you marry someone that has bad credit, can that affect your credit score?”

“What happens if you get money from a family member—where should it go?” 

“How do you sign up for a bank account?” (When I asked how many of them had accounts currently, it was only 2 out of the 5.) 

And perhaps most important, “What happens if we ever get sidetracked and miss a payment on something?”

These were big questions and they deserved big, detailed answers. They deserved an entire year course spent on nothing else but the answers and the strategies, because from my own perspective (after having been lured by a free mascot teddy bear into a credit card sign-up my first day in college and going down a hard financial spiral) I knew what trouble they could be in for.  I knew that rather than the option to go home on early release as a senior, if I could have had the opportunity to learn more about “this stuff” in high school, I would have been thrilled to. And so, I tried to provide all that I could in the blocks that we had but I remember looking at Kay’s face as I left that day and just wishing I could do more.

Luckily for me, Chesapeake Career Center has embarked on a huge joint effort with us this school year and is ensuring that almost every one of their students will have a portfolio course under their belts before they graduate. As such, I felt pretty comfortable asking if I could go back this second semester and re-visit my favorite dental class to check in on them and see if they feel any less stressed.

I sat down with Kay, Jaylen, Rachel, Isaiah Reid, and Jermaya Mitchell the other day and I asked how they were holding up. Jermaya is working at Hwy. 55 as a server. She’s trying to be budget-focused and her parents expect her to pay for her gas, phone, and even some bills since she has income. Isaiah and Rachel are feeling “okay.” They want to stay closer to home and go to ODU to study and plan to continue with dental at least in some respect.  Jaylen hasn’t changed his tune from the thrill of Vegas. While Kay and Jermaya are a little more on the fence of where they’ll go, though Kay feels a pull to the Midwest where she grew up.

The great thing about this program is that all of these students will graduate high school as an entry-level dental assistant. They have to work for 3500 hours in that position before they can take their national board exam, but after that, they could become dental hygienists. The exceptional part about all this is that even when they are “just” working on their hours and going to school, they will still be in an entry level position that ranges from $17-$25 per hour, something I try to point out to them as being rather unusual for anybody their age.

Of course, with this money they’ll be earning will come responsibility and that is still a scary variable. I continue to set their minds at ease and encourage them above all else to start both a checking and savings account where they can keep an emergency fund for all those things we can’t predict. I try to talk them through the concept of credit once again and suggest that auto-draft payments are life savers if you’re worried about keeping track of too much. I mention that roommates can help a lot with the cost of living, but I was shot down pretty quick on that—this group isn’t too keen on strangers in their space. And while I certainly know that attitude can change pretty quickly when faced with rent, I’m okay with simply planting the seed for now.  I find that I’m not at all worried about these particular students because I know the technical skills they have, and I know that they’re asking me the right questions—that counts for a lot in my book. But as our time fades, I ask them anyway, “okay, what could we as adults do to help? What do we need to do more of for you?”

Kay pipes up immediately, “stop pressuring us and let us make our own mistakes.” Everyone nods in agreement.  Which, given the multitude of fears she and her classmates expressed before, I thought was a little strange since they really didn’t seem to want to be making any mistakes if they could help it and wouldn’t that require guidance and intervention? Everything they said they wanted to know about, well, someone has to explain it, but I suppose they are looking to simply not feel so pressured by it.

But, on the other hand, can I blame them for wanting the best of both worlds from all of us? They want us to be adults that trust this generation enough to let them do their own thing, but somehow just know when it’s become a little too tough and they need guidance. I think that’s what everyone actually wants deep down and while it seems like an easy concept, I certainly understand that it is not. And to give her credit, I think Kay understands that too, she, like everyone else, just needs to be allowed their frustrations from time to time. And then there’s the simplest most straightforward response I could possibly hope for, “What could adults do for us?” Jaylen asks. “Simple, give us money.” We all laugh, and I tell him how much I wish I could, after all, we’ve done a great job running up his costs of living and education all this time. We bid our farewells until I can hopefully check in once more before the year ends. 

—Harvest Bellante, Program Director