Norwich Free Academy students ask, 'What's Next for Me?'

Norwich — The guidance counselors at Norwich Free Academy wanted to make sure each of the 608 seniors has a plan upon graduation, and after two months of planning, they pulled together the school's first "What's Next for Me?" event on Wednesday.

The students gathered in the gym for an assembly and pep rally before going to either work on college applications and financial aid, speak with military representatives or hear from local employers, based on interests expressed in a survey earlier this year.

"Make sure you utilize your passion to fuel your purpose, whatever it is," guest speaker Frederick-Douglass Knowles II — an NFA grad, Three Rivers Community College professor and Hartford's first poet laureate — told the students.

He spoke of his journey from becoming a father in high school to selling drugs to discovering his passion for poetry at Eastern Connecticut State University to going to graduate school to getting called back to Norwich.

Knowles recalls being "petrified" the one day he spent in jail and advised the students, "Never stand in front of somebody who has the power to control your life who knows nothing about you. It is the most humiliating experience."

On either end of Knowles' talk were performances from the Jazz Pom Dance Squad — dressed in sparkly red costumes, with pom-poms and Santa hats — and the marching band.

Counselor Anne Zinn said the event stemmed from counselors attending a National College Access Network training session in September.

"I think we've seen a need for a while to have something for all students, not just students who are college-bound," Zinn said.

She thinks that historically, the pendulum has swung from an emphasis on entering the workforce to an emphasis on college, and it's now swinging back to the middle. Counselor Jessica Vocatura noted that for some, college may not be an option now but it could be down the road.

The students who are finished with their college and scholarship applications, which counselor Mallarie Seidel said is a relatively low share, could skip the three stations and simply go to the atrium, where all seniors could enter for the chance to win a free senior package or yearbook.

"I think it's a really good opportunity for kids that don't really know their future. They get a chance to explore different options," senior Blaise Beaucejour said. He said the event "shows effort" on the part of NFA, that not many schools do something like this.

He was sitting at a table in the library with Kevon Maignan, who wants to be an accountant and was starting his FAFSA, or the application for federal student aid, and Kiari Walston, who said he hasn't worked on applications at home but was using the time at school Wednesday to work on the Common Application, which can be used to apply to several participating colleges and universities.

In another room were representatives of Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, or EWIB, Chelsea Groton Bank, Charter Oak Federal Credit Union, Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods Resort Casino, Universal Technical Institute, Lincoln Tech and the Norwich Fire Department.

Angelo Reyes filled out a survey on a computer at EWIB's table; he said he has a little bit of sheet metal experience but wants more manufacturing experience because he wants to work at Electric Boat.

Matthew Barstrom, who plans to apply to school for fashion design, commented, "I just wanted to see what other options there is besides college, just in case in April or something, I completely change my mind."

Another area at NFA had representation from military branches. Connecticut Army National Guard recruiting officer Sgt. 1st Class Edy Torres said a lot of the students he's talked to are interested in how the National Guard can assist in paying for their education.

As for future college and career readiness efforts at NFA, Vocatura said the school plans to do a financial aid day in February and a signing day in May.

e.moser@theday.com

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