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By Allison Hata | Contributor



Photos credit courtesy of Vital Link

Becoming a doctor may take more than a decade, but did you know that the experts teaching surgeons how to use state-of-the-art medical devices only need a bachelor’s degree? 

This was an eye-opening moment for the Vital Link academy students who toured the Edwards Lifesciences campus this summer and met with leaders across all business functions, from accounting and marketing to engineering and operations. At its core, this is what the Orange County-based nonprofit does: provides a link between education and industry, and takes kids out of the classroom for career exploration opportunities.

“If I knew that a medical device career was an option, I may not have dropped out of science!” says April Barnes, president of Vital Link. 

All jokes aside, April did end up launching her career in a hospital — though not how she once imagined. Growing up in a working class community in Philadelphia, she had her heart set on getting out of town. Her solution: enrolling as pre-med at a liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

“To make money, you had to be a doctor,” she says, explaining her logic as a teen. “But organic chemistry broke my brain and I was like, ‘Now what?’”

Luckily, an English professor became her guiding light toward a new major in language and literature, which in turn fueled a love of theater and event planning with nonprofits. She got involved with several organizations as a volunteer over the years, but becoming a nonprofit executive was never on her radar. 

“I was like, ‘Do people get paid for doing that? And then, for some strange reason, City of Hope gave me a chance,” she says. 

The West Coast hospital had fundraisers all over the country, so April was tapped to work in the mid-Atlantic office coordinating events. It was the start of a nearly 20-year career in nonprofits — one that includes twists like earning an MBA in healthcare administration and a move to California before she took on leadership roles at organizations such as American Lung Association and Speech and Language Development Center. 

“I share that story with all of the students that I speak with,” April says. “I did not know nonprofit executive was a job. And so, I want other kids to find that before their four to six years in college. Before they're like, ‘Hey, what is it that I'm doing here?’”

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Hands-On Career Exploration

“For a very long time, we've been very focused on college being the end result, and not the job. And that’s the big disconnect,” April says. “The end result of going to college should always have been the career you were going to have. There was a good decade or more where that really wasn't.”

Having a passion and an education often isn’t enough to propel aspiring professionals into a fulfilling career. This is what drives the Vital Link mission. By giving students hands-on, experiential learning opportunities through events put on with the help of industry partners, the nonprofit is opening their eyes to new — and sometimes less conventional — career prospects. 

Last year, Vital Link partnered with 25 SoCal school districts, including all 15 in Orange County, to provide career exploration programming to more than 34,000 students. The team hosts anywhere from 50 to 65 events a year, including skills workshops, niche academies for drone operation and solar energy, exhibit and pathway days, industry competitions and more. 

The events are adapted based on each district’s needs. Sometimes that could look like a tour of companies like Medtronic or Providence, where students may walk the halls and realize they envision a career in forensics instead of nursing. There are also workshops on how to become an entrepreneur or write your resume, all led by Vital Link’s industry partners so students gain exposure to different fields while advancing their soft skills. 

Every event has some sort of connection to career exploration, down to the prizes awarded for its student competitions in fields like culinary, digital media arts and robotics. Instead of gift cards or scholarships, Vital Link offers some sort of career experience to the top winners, from facility tours to internships and professional mentorship. 

“Our mission is career exploration — it's not getting a job,” April says. “ I've had kids that … want to be an engineer, and then they talk to a few and they're like, ‘I don't want to be an engineer.’ No one totally knows what all goes into it, so that’s what we’re just trying to showcase.” 

A new signature event for Vital Link that achieves this goal in broad strokes is its student leadership summit. Held for the first time in 2022 for almost 700 high school students, the conference offers workshops with industry pros, career pathway exhibits, community college tables and panel sessions. A wide range of industries will be represented at the 2023 event taking place at the fairgrounds in December, from engineering and manufacturing to digital media arts and computer tech. New this year is a virtual reality component, which will allow Vital Link to showcase careers that would typically require elaborate equipment and exhibit components the venue couldn’t accommodate, such as animal science, automotive and construction.

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Building a Future Workforce

While Vital Link has primarily provided programming for high schoolers, it has slowly grown the number of events offered to younger students in sixth through eighth grade. During the previous school year, the nonprofit served more than 10,000 students with its Exhibit Days, which offer an in-depth, interactive look at fields including biomedical engineering, digital photography, 3-D printing and robotics. In addition to the hands-on exhibits in high-demand fields, there is also information provided about pathways specific to students’ local feeder high schools. 

“We're seeing that we need to plant the seeds sooner,” April says. “Do you want to learn about medical? Do you want to learn about design? Do you want to learn automotive, engineering? … Here are the classes you can take in high school to start getting you there. 

“A lot of the eight graders — they need to pick those classes before they get to high school,” she continues. “And if they don't know what they are, they're less likely to take those classes. So that's why we went younger.” 

Another major effort is shifting programming to meet high school students where they are. As a small nonprofit, the Vital Link team can be nimble. While getting students out of the classroom and over to industry sites will always be impactful, April also saw an opportunity to bring experiential career exploration into schools. 

After a pilot in two Anaheim classrooms during the 2022-23 academic year, Vital Link is ready to adapt it for other districts this fall as a six-week program with a new industry partner each session. Students will work specifically on soft skills, such as writing emails, resume writing and business communications, but learn them within the framework of how to break into a specific field like aerospace engineering. 

“We joke that students are more likely to listen to a stranger than they are their own teacher or their own parents,” April says. “This concept is why we bring in industry speakers and they say, ‘This is why I have this on my resume’ — all of those pieces that every employer wants them to know, but we do it with an industry perspective.”

To meet the diverse needs of all the school districts, Vital Link’s network of industry partners needs to be vast. And it is — from real estate agents and accountants to structural engineers and IT professionals working at both small and large businesses. One thing all partners have in common, however, is a passion for Vital Link’s mission of creating an empowered workforce where students can pursue career paths that align their interests with their aspirations. And by working together, April believes they can open doors to new opportunities for youth in pursuit of dream careers they never thought possible. 

“I ask every business partner that I talk to not, ‘What did you want to be when you grew up?’ — but, ‘Did you even know that the job you have right now existed when you were in high school?’” April says. “And almost 80 percent did not. People had no idea. … This is why I’m so passionate about what Vital Link does.” 


Vital Link is looking for new industry partners that can provide mentorship, speak at events and offer site tours. To get involved, attend the organization’s first-ever gala on Sept. 30, or join an industry advisory board, visit VITALINK.ORG for more information. 

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