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Jess Handrik: “It’s always the right time to come to VAL”

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Posted on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at 1:24 PM


Jess is an Academic Advisor at Vermont Adult Learning. As part of her job, she works with Winooski, Colchester, and Milton High Schools for the high school completion program. Although she does her job from home primarily, it is very interactive. She meets with students (virtually) to co-create and co-develop with students their personalized learning plans. These plans leverage students’ strengths and ambitions in developing action plans for educational and career growth. At the virtual meetings, Jess checks in with them about their plan and their next steps, identifying any barriers, and celebrating milestones. She also communicates regularly with the schools and any other community partners or family members who are a part of the students’ team.  On a typical day, Jess will also engage in professional learning around topics like anti-racsist teaching practice and innovative approaches to career exploration; and, meets with a team of colleagues to share challenges and brainstorm solutions. 

Jess earned her undergraduate degree in English Literature and when she was close to graduating, she became interested in two different areas: writing poetry and feminist literary criticism. Just before graduation, Jess realized that she was not done learning, and considered whether she would pursue an MFA in creative writing or an MA in the liberal arts field. She chose to attend graduate school at the City University of New York Graduate Center’s Liberal Studies department. This program allowed her to put together her own course of study. At first, Jess did most of her work in English literature, but took a bit of a turn after being recommended for a job in the purchasing department at Lincoln Center for Performing Arts. This job required her to engage with all departments, which is how she discovered the education division of the center — the Lincoln Center Institute. After learning about the program and reflecting on her own experience encountering an “arts desert” in high school following robust and impactful performing arts experiences in elementary and middle school, Jess had an epiphany — she wanted to be working with students and teachers to engage in the visual and performing arts. As a result, she shifted her graduate studies to be centered more on education and arts administration and did a lot of research on the topic of arts education philosophy and practice. Jess described this as an “interesting time to join the field” as she was doing her studies at the same time that New York City was trying to bring the arts back into the schools through a public-private partnership called Project ARTs. After graduation, Jess built a career at Lincoln Center to the position of Director of K12, Community, & Higher Education Partnerships over the course of close to 20 years. Lincoln Center’s educational programming was founded on the philosophies of UVM founder John  Dewey and the influential Columbia University Teachers College professor Maxine Greene and based on experiential learning and the potential of engagement with the arts to transform our assumptions and ideas about ourselves and our society. Given this connection, Jess was particularly excited to move to Vermont in 2016 to join the team at The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. While there, she worked in collaboration with colleagues, artists, teachers, and other community members to increase access to the arts among families with young children and older adults, among other access and equity based initiatives. Like millions of her fellow, beloved performing arts professionals and administrators since the pandemic began, Jess was laid off from The Flynn when it temporarily closed and has found a renewed professional joy in her pivot from arts education to adult education, drawing on decades of experience designing and conducting professional learning for educators and several years of experience as an adult literacy volunteer. She has now been in her position on the Essential Skills team at VAL for about 7 months and prior to her current position, she was a volunteer in the English Language Learners area at VAL since 2017. Her current role allows her to focus on equitable access to public education and a pathway to a high school credential — a right of every Vermonter — and to talk with students about not just the what but the why of their learning plans, including transferable skills and proficiencies. It is a role that Jess feels can access all her past experiences while also challenging her to learn every day about collaborating with individuals to meet their goals. Jess stated that her educational and career journey is an example of what can happen if you, “keep doing what you’re connected to and love.”

When asked about an aspect of her work at VAL that she particularly enjoys, Jess replied that, “it’s the people.” She enjoys working with the students, her coworkers, and the different schools, but that, “really it’s the conversations with the students.” She loves that each conversation is completely different because every person has their own unique pathway and goals. Jess also loves that, not only is there a state law in Vermont (that Vermont Adult Learning was instrumental in achieving),  that any and every person may access their flexible pathway to a high school credential, but that the graduation requirements are based on transferable skills and proficiencies.  

From an advocacy and equity point of view, Jess is interested to explore further what performance assessments look like in adult education, having had the opportunity to explore arts-based performance assessments that focused on transferable skills and proficiencies through a funded research project while at Lincoln Center.  From a  direct service point of view, Jess stated that her job requires her to be very detail-oriented with lots of follow-ups and paperwork, but that she really enjoys the actual engagement with students and high schools that her job allows for, whether that be asking the right, open ended questions that reveal to students what their next steps might be as they explore different college and career options, or keeping up with the momentum of  students who already know exactly what their goals are making sure they have all the internal and external resources at Vermont Adult Learning’s disposal to achieve their goals.

In terms of her work-life balance, Jess stated that, “there’s no separation in terms of core values.” Her job is in-line with what she is passionate about  — education and the arts  — and she engages with learning in these areas outside of her work hours. However, Jess emphasized that it is essential to avoid burnout in her role; she needs to be there for students to the best of her capability and takes her responsibility to the students seriously. As a result, Jess talked about how she needs to take breaks when needed. She said that this is something that you, “have to really work at” but that she feels very supported in this by VAL. Outside of work, Jess is both a choir member and board member for a local community choir, serves on the board of Leadership Champlain (from which she graduated in 2018) loves to read, and loves to discuss reading with others — she even volunteers for a community senior center to run reading and reflection groups focused on anti-racism. She also loves long walks with her dog and amateur photography. 

According to Jess, VAL’s work matters for several reasons. In terms of the high school completion program, Jess stated that access to education is a right, not a privilege and that VAL makes sure of this every day through both practice and advocacy. She also discussed how the way our socioeconomic system is set up, a high school diploma holds a lot of weight and VAL is a key place for students to access and engage with their right to thrive. She continued to explain that VAL is important because the traditional schooling model tends to be very narrow and VAL has the capability to be more responsive to individual students’ needs and then personalize their education surrounding said needs. Jess also added that the English Language Learning program is a great resource for New Americans. Jess emphasized that, “it’s always the right time to come to VAL and we’re always ready.”

This profile was written by Rebecca Shames, VAL Development & Marketing Intern.

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