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“I’ve learned how to market myself, even if I don’t have much experience."


Students sitting around a table

Image caption: HBCU Prospects Focusing on the Prototyping Activity

Inside the walls of Manual Career Technical Center on the eastern edge of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, nine high schoolers sit with their heads down around a large square table. Looking over their shoulders, you can see them furiously twisting small fuzzy wires into seemingly abstract shapes. The room is silent, save for occasional noises of exasperation as the young adults struggle to form their materials into their desired shape. “One minute left, everyone! Don’t forget to think about how you will present your idea!” the program facilitator calls out above the group. The intense concentration shifts as the kids begin to bounce ideas off their friends,

“I’m going to use you to demonstrate!”

“What do you think about this music at the beginning?” 

“Don’t forget to tell the judges about…”

These young people are HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) Walking Billboard Prospects. Since 2015, the three-year competitively-selected program has prepared high schoolers to choose, apply, and finance a post-secondary degree at one of 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States. An impressive forty percent of program graduates are the first in their family to attend college after high school.

Students accepted into the Walking Billboard Prospects cohort participate in a rigorous schedule of programming and take trips to visit different HBCUs. They spend their time engaging in test preparation, completing community service, receiving alumni mentorship, finding summer internships, navigating scholarship and FAFSA applications, and exploring career options. Junior Achievement partners with the HBCU Walking Billboard Prospects program to offer students learning units centered around financial decision-making, entrepreneurship, and career readiness.

Today, the HBCU prospects practiced prototyping and pitching. Jaelyn, a bright-eyed Junior, explained the challenge as she waited for her turn to pitch. “Today we are marketing a product or service that we made up. We have to explain it using only two pipe cleaners!” One by one each student stood up and explained the problem they had identified, their unique solution and its features and benefits, and reasoned why the panel of judges should select their idea. 

One student designed an expandable modular dollhouse. Another created a fashion accessory with multiple uses as a hair comb, bracelet, or phone decoration. Jaelyn rose from the table and proudly displayed her creation. “I made a new and improved door opener. There are many types of door handles out there. My opener has a hand mechanism so you can open more than just doors with simple handles.” Jaelyn shared with the judges. To sweeten the deal she added, “Every door opener purchased comes with a free face mask!” The judges nodded and continued to listen to each concept before gathering to decide a winner.

During their presentations, some individuals were clearly more comfortable in front of an audience than others, but the experience of championing an idea was valuable for all. Jaelyn gained confidence and sureness from her Junior Achievement activities. “I’ve learned how to market myself, even if I don’t have much experience. I’ve learned how to self advocate!!”

As the judges returned from deliberation, a tense hush fell over the kids. The adults announced the third and second place winners, pausing before revealing the first place idea. “We liked the practicality of the winning idea and thought it was smart to offer a bonus incentive to purchase. first place goes to Jaelyn and her door opener!” Jaelyn went to the front of the room to collect her prize – a giftcard to a local business – while her peers gave her a round of applause. 


Jaelyn is still considering what she wants to pursue after graduating high school. “I’m not sure what major I want to do yet. I’m trying to figure it out and this program will help me. My favorite thing at the moment is music – I play the baritone, piano, and ukulele.” Her classmates chimed in with their own career aspirations. “I want to be an entrepreneur,” one said, another offered, “I’m going into fashion.” A few had more concrete ideas. “I’d like to go into nursing. I like to take care of people and I’d get to wear crocs to work!” a young lady added. Her friend interjected, “I’m going to be a defense attorney or prosecutor! I’m a good debater and arguere and those are qualities you need in those fields!”

The good news for HBCU Prospects is that, whatever path they choose, they’ll have a strong support network cheering them on the entire way. With the resources, tools, and guidance from Junior Achievement and the HBCU Walking Billboard program, these young people have everything they need to shine brightly on their college applications and beyond.

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