The Youth Opportunity Ambassador Program Celebrates 5 Years of Empowering Future Leaders

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Lessons learned from YO Ambassadors

Eleven young people joined the Youth Opportunity (YO) Ambassador Program earlier this summer anticipating professional growth, but they could not predict the profound impact the program would have on their personal development and future careers. With support and funding from McDonald’s Corporation and practical life skills training facilitated by IYF, the YO initiative serves to reduce barriers to employment for young people ages 16 to 24 in Chicago and Washington, D.C. As part of the initiative, the YO Ambassador program was created, which gives participants an opportunity to give perspective on issues that are barriers to success, as well as feedback on the program’s ability to support them.

The YO Ambassador Program has been thriving for the last five years and it continues to improve annually by shaping future curriculums based on previous cohorts’ feedback. The experience is always memorable for all involved, and this year is no exception. The ever-evolving curriculum includes everything from networking in-person and online to navigating mental health. Furthermore, YO Ambassadors are exposed to diverse career paths through career panels with McDonald's corporate staff employees. They learn about critical life skills that aren’t traditionally taught such as storytelling, project management, and time management. Such skills are reinforced through assignments and personal reflections designed to benefit YO Ambassadors, such as creating a video resume to stand out in a competitive professional environment.

The different topics covered strive to appeal to participants with varying backgrounds, interests, and future career goals. Most notably, the program pushes participants to take the first step in important actions that may feel daunting without guidance. YO Ambassador Stephanie Ramirez mentioned they found LinkedIn to be confusing and overwhelming before receiving advice from current McDonald's corporate staff employees. “They taught us what networking meant and how to build rapport,” Stephanie explained. Rapport building is very specific to LinkedIn networking as follower count is not prioritized as much as other social platforms. This knowledge is not widely discussed among adolescents or young adults, which makes these conversations between working professionals and YO Ambassadors even more valuable.  

Alongside career panels and networking, ambassadors also ranked the Supporting Others and Rising (SOAR) leadership curriculum as a top highlight of their YO term. SOAR encourages everyone to explore their personal leadership and collaboration styles. “I learned a lot about what I bring to a team,” YO Ambassador, Amiracle Johnson, said of her experience. Better yet, the leadership skills being taught are not a one-size-fits-all formula. “I learned about teamwork and different leadership styles,” explained another YO Ambassador, Tony Reyes. Ebenezer Neequaye echoed this sentiment, explaining the program taught him to self-advocate and “embrace the type of role I play in team activities.” The most impactful leaders pay attention to the group dynamics as closely as their own leadership strengths. At the program’s kick-off, Tony, Ebenezer, and Amiracle cited a desire to improve their leadership abilities as a main driver of joining the YO Ambassador Program. With this new leadership knowledge and development, time spent in the YO Ambassador Program seems to deliver a valuable return on investment.

These leadership skills became much more meaningful because participants receive guidance and context on how to use them. Similar to the other emerging leaders, YO Ambassador Kimberly Rosette also envisioned herself leading a team in five years’ time when she first joined the cohort. “The program pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and develop the confidence to tackle complex problems with creative solutions,” Kimberly stated. Applying leadership skills can be an intimidating task alone, but Kimberly and Maria Angela Lopez felt more comfortable trying new things knowing they had full support from other cohort members and IYF employees. “It’s very important to have people that support us and help us grow professionally,” Lopez mentioned upon recommending the YO Ambassador Program to future applicants.

Having a sound support system is a key element in allowing participants to accept and embrace uncertainty. Ebenezer’s time in the YO Ambassador Program led him to appreciate small steps towards progress, even if the end goal remains undetermined. “It’s okay not to have everything figured out, but it’s important to try your hand in things and learn from what you like and don’t like,” Ebenezer said of his experience. While uncertainty is a prominent theme during this stage of life, participants used the YO Ambassador Program to identify and strengthen their support systems to navigate the challenge.

The Youth Opportunity Ambassador Program strives to leave participants better than they arrived. While all Ambassadors enter the program with unique potential and strengths, they gain clarity on where those leadership qualities will take them as they gain life experience. The lessons they have learned will trickle down to the people they impact, both personally and professionally. Above all, the Youth Opportunity initiative will always continue to support them along the way as the connections Ambassadors have made in these impactful months will stretch for many years to come.

Learn more about the Youth Opportunity pre-employment initiative and the partnership between IYF and McDonald's.