Today, Salesforce announced it has awarded $1.5M in grants to three organizations across the United States — Beyond12, Bottom Line, and The Opportunity Network — focused on increasing higher education access and persistence for students from underrepresented backgrounds. These investments build on Salesforce’s ongoing commitment to education.
One of the grant recipients, The Opportunity Network (OppNet), is a national education nonprofit based in New York that ignites the drive, curiosity, and agency of underrepresented students on their paths to and through college and into thriving careers. In this interview, OppNet’s President and CEO, AiLun Ku, discusses how the organization is reimagining college and career success for young people.
Q. Tell us about your background and what brought you to The Opportunity Network.
I moved to the United States with my family from Taiwan when I was 10 years old. We moved to a small town that didn’t know how to engage Multilingual Learners, so my sisters and I were left to figure out quite a bit of learning on our own.
When we moved, my dad packed up three sets of encyclopedias: the Britannica and two sets in Mandarin. We used those to translate and double check a lot of our work. But the feeling of being marginalized really sparked my dedication to education and social justice. I have worked in social justice jobs and education jobs, and my CEO role at OppNet allows me to work at the intersection of the two fields I am most passionate about.
Q. How is The Opportunity Network working to close the opportunity gap?
OppNet is working to close the opportunity gap in interconnected ways.
First, we work closely with amazing, first-generation, college bound students of color to ensure they get access to the training, skills, access, opportunities, and resources to pursue their ambitions.
Second, we train educators and youth development practitioners and leaders to build their capacities to support students of color for postsecondary and career opportunities.
Third, we partner with institutions like public high schools, community-based organizations, higher education institutions, and employers to ready their learning and work spaces to welcome people of color, include people of color, and invest in people of color to help them thrive. And lastly, to respond to the learning interruption caused by the pandemic, we made a significant portion of our Career FluencyⓇ curriculum available on our open access learning platform, UninterruptED: Unstoppable Learning, for any student to stay the course in readying themselves for college or work. Our multiple streams of work are set up to address the systemic challenges and interwoven inequities that are at the root of the opportunity gap.
Q. What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on first-generation students and their paths to and through college?
COVID-19, in many ways, has intensified the problem areas of college persistence for first-generation students from low income backgrounds. For example, remote learning made a lot of assumptions about students’ access to reliable internet, laptop, tablets, and even cell phones. On the flip side, recorded lectures that students can watch for review and live transcription technology helped some students access better learning tools than traditional classrooms.
One of the biggest losses in the context of higher education during the pandemic is the missing or invisible opportunities to build networks with peers, professors, and administrators. So many career supporting and building networks are built with peers and mentors in college and summer internships, and we have heard from many of our students how difficult that has been.
Finally, the burden of expectations is stressful enough for first-generation college students. When it is compounded with a 15-month pandemic, maintaining and supporting mental wellness also became a huge priority for us in supporting our students.
Q. How is The Opportunity Network supporting schools and other education organizations?
Our Career Fluency® Partnerships program is an immersive capacity-building program for schools and youth-serving organizations across the country looking to accelerate postsecondary and workforce readiness for their students.
Through tailored integration of our Career Fluency® curriculum, OppNet’s Partnerships team designs a community-centered strategy for each partner organization to reach their desired goals and amplify student outcomes. We work with every partner to map their community assets and engage multiple community stakeholder groups before we co-construct goals with our partners. Our intention is to always support our partners to be the best version of themselves in serving their amazing young people.
Q. How has The Opportunity Network partnered with Salesforce?
OppNet is thankful for our longstanding partnership with Salesforce. With Salesforce’s philanthropic support, OppNet continues to have the financial resources necessary to advance our work, including successfully progressing on our ambitious growth plans while also shifting the needle on college and career success for young people from low income and underrepresented backgrounds.
Salesforce employees have volunteered with OppNet over the past several years, too, which has been critical to the success of our Fellows program. This year, Salesforce employees have served as College Essay Coaches for our 12th grade Fellows applying to college. As College Essay Coaches, volunteers were matched 1:1 with Fellows to provide individualized coaching on students’ personal statements for college applications. Salesforce employees have also volunteered at our speed networking events, career exposure roundtables, and mock interview workshops.
In addition, in 2018, employee volunteers provided OppNet with pro bono training in Salesforce, enabling us to build our proficiency in utilizing the Salesforce platform.
Q. What’s the biggest lesson you and your organization learned this past year?
There are so many! I think the biggest lesson that was reaffirmed for me personally this year is to always care for people first. In the midst of chaos, my first priority was to maximize stability and certainty. So I asked myself what OppNet could do as an employer, as a community program, and as a partner to ensure we were a stable resource that wasn’t reacting to every new COVID-19 development in the early months of uncertainty.
Leading through that lens has enabled our whole organization to care for one another, ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.