Earlier this year, Noemi Y. Perez, president and CEO of The Immokalee Foundation, was named FCAN’s 2022 College Ready Florida Innovator. In addition to honoring her work during FCAN’s Talent Strong Florida Summit, we recently spoke with Perez about redesigning her foundation’s college-preparatory programs to ensure every student acquires the tools and experience that lead to an in-demand career and financial independence.
Noemi Y. Perez is serving the Southwest Florida community she grew up in, which makes the success of its students extra meaningful.
Perez was raised in Immokalee — located in Collier County and home to one of the nation’s largest migrant communities — and is currently president and CEO of The Immokalee Foundation (TIF), a nonprofit that works to provide students the tools, opportunities, and support they need to succeed at each level of their education. She first joined TIF in 2008 as a student advocate.
“Every student has a unique story, but there was always something about their upbringing that I could relate with,” Perez said of her days as a student advocate for the foundation. She was promoted to CEO in 2018, but her personal connection to Immokalee students and their families remains strong. “Because I’m from the community, I feel like a proud second parent cheering our students on when they excel.”
For the past three years, Perez has spearheaded the development of an innovative Career Pathways model at TIF that also aligns with FCAN’s College Ready Florida initiatives.
Even though 100% of the students served by TIF graduate high school and are placed in postsecondary education at a university, college, or technical program, Perez said the new model was developed because “we wanted to ensure that we were taking care of our students and preparing them as best we could for the careers that were in-demand.”
Developing the Career Pathways program included extensive collaboration with middle and high schools, businesses, and higher education institutions in the area.
“We had a lot of conversations asking, ‘What do you need from an employee?’ and ‘What are the credentials required for certain positions?’” Perez said.
The Career Pathways curriculum begins in 6th grade and, while the process is not easy, it is meant to extract useful information from students early on.
“The application itself is about eight pages, and there are 5-6 essays they need to write for us to get to know them better,” Perez said. “After that, we bring them in for a 15-minute interview.”
Career Pathways launched during the 2019-20 academic year.
Throughout middle school, Career Pathways students learn about a broad range of careers through a six-week rotation focused on four pathways: Engineering & Construction Management; Business Management & Entrepreneurship; Education & Human Services, and Health Care.
By the end of 8th grade, each student must create a Career Action Plan presentation for parents, counselors, mentors, and other advocates, which includes selecting one of the four pathways. Once they are in high school, the students are immersed in their chosen pathway through afterschool programs throughout 9th and 10th grade.
Perez said high schoolers in the program must also complete a 120-hour internship — typically during the summer before senior year — preceded by a six-week Florida Gulf Coast University course on soft skills in the workplace.
Students also receive hands-on experience in their chosen pathway.
Through TIF’s Career Pathways Learning Lab project, students in the Engineering & Construction Management and Business Management & Entrepreneurship pathways are working with industry professionals to learn about land development, home construction, and marketing/sales as they build a new 18-home subdivision for the foundation.
“It’s not just providing education for the students, it’s providing housing,” Perez said of the Career Pathways Learning Lab. “This project is giving back to the entire community.”
In that spirit, Perez hopes communities beyond Immokalee can benefit from the Career Pathways model.
“Our plan was to create a model that other organizations in other communities can adapt,” Perez said. “Even if the model doesn’t fit perfectly, there are pieces that other organizations can grab and use to make a significant impact.”