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SCRA Mini-Grant Spotlight: Beyond Expectations

Beyond Expectations: Collaborating to Bring out the Best in our Young People

Beyond Expectations: Collaborating to Bring out the Best in our Young People by  He Len Chung, PhD & Laura Plishka, BA

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The 2013 Community Mini-Grant supported a collaboration between The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) and Beyond Expectations, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides teens with marketable life skills through hands-on media education, leadership development, and service experiences. Beyond Expectations was started in 1999 by a group of concerned parents in Burlington County, New Jersey. Working with local schools and community organizations, the organization hosted college fairs, campus tours, financial literacy workshops, and educational summits, inviting college students to return and share their stories about life in college. In 2008, Beyond Expectations shifted its focus to vulnerable youth – including those involved with the foster care system or facing mental health issues – to help give these teens a voice and promote positive outcomes for this underserved population. Since 1999, the organization has impacted the lives of over 4,000 families across New Jersey, and students have been accepted to more than 25 different colleges across the country.


Project Description

Grant funds were used to support the “Young Professionals Leadership Initiative,” a program designed for vulnerable youth to gain leadership skills in three areas: career and employment skills; independent living skills; and media advocacy. Through the program, youth had opportunities to learn about media production, develop their own films, and showcase the films in a family film screening event. The program was time sensitive for at least two reasons. First, concentrated poverty, a declining level of educational achievement, and lack of opportunity for gainful employment have created significant challenges for Trenton youth during the last few years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010; NJ Department of Education, 2011). Second, some youth, particularly those in foster care, enter adulthood with minimal support, increasing their risk for poor adult outcomes, including homelessness and mental health problems (Courtney & Heuring, 2005). Research suggests that (1) it is critical to create opportunities for youth to contribute, create, and lead, as well as connect to caring adults, and (2) vulnerable youth who participate in creative arts programs are more likely to show positive outcomes – lower antisocial behavior, more civic engagement, more effective communication – than peers who do not (Catterall, Dumais, & Hampden-Thompson, 2012; Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, 2011; Osgood et al., 2005). With the support of SCRA mini-grant funds, the Young Professionals Leadership Initiative program was able to create these important developmental opportunities.

The collaboration between TCNJ and Beyond Expectations brought together teenagers living in and near Trenton, NJ – many of whom were involved with the foster care system – with TCNJ undergraduate psychology students. The idea for the current project originated from many years of collaborations with youth participants. Beyond Expectations takes a participatory approach to its work with teens, and input from previous program participants shaped the overall development of the current project (a media literacy workshop followed by a community screening). Beyond Expectation’s leadership also wanted to integrate college students into sessions to help program youth develop informal mentoring relationships with college students who live near them. This goal was a good fit for us at TCNJ, as Community Engaged Learning (CEL) is considered a signature program that contributes in a positive way to learning beyond the formal classroom experience. CEL is a teaching strategy that tries to cultivate the common ground that exists between the learning objectives of a course and the unmet needs of the community. The CEL class-based projects or experiences are designed to be educational for students but also help improve the quality of life for others in our region. These experiences can be especially transformative when students are able to collaborate with community partners and apply their knowledge and skills to some of society’s most pressing challenges.

We used mini-grant funds to help support the program for two cycles: fall 2013 and spring 2014. In both cylces, the primary goal was to empower youth by providing marketable life skills, offering opportunities to build meaningful relationships with professional mentors and volunteers, presenting alternative life and career choices, and helping youth discover their talents and passions. To learn about media production, youth were able to operate cameras, produce audio clips, and help develop TV segments. They were encouraged to practice different studio crew roles (from producer to floor manager) to enhance their communication skills and help them understand the importance of collaboration. They also had opportunities to meet and get advice from media professionals (e.g., sound mixer) who work in the business. Finally, the program emphasized leadership development and independent living, as most youth were making the transition to adulthood, and some were aging out of the foster care system (i.e., having reached an age when they would leave their foster family’s home). Examples of session activities included: budgeting and the basics of finance; completing a skills assessment exercise where youth identified and shared their strengths and areas of development; getting public speaking practice with representatives from Toastmasters (National Speakers Association); participating in “College Access” events on TCNJ’s campus (including campus tours); creating a video resume; and participating in live job interviews with AMC Theatres. Youth also helped to plan and participate in a Family Film Screening event held at the end of the spring 2014 session where youth shared their accomplishments and showcased media projects they helped to develop.

To assess the impact of this program, we conducted interviews with 8 participants. Four themes emerged from these conversations. First, the Young Professionals Leadership Initiative program exposed youth to challenging experiences that helped them develop personal and professional skills (e.g., speaking in front of a camera, learning how to set up lighting for a photo shoot or video segment, practicing how to interview a person on camera, working together with people to accomplish a goal). Youth noted that they felt more confident about trying new activities and tackling challenging tasks because of the experiences with the program. Second, youth appreciated that the program exposed them to the professional/college world. In particular, they valued the opportunity to ask questions and get advice from people who were pursuing careers in the real world (e.g., media professionals, college students studying Psychology). Third, youth developed relationships with caring and helpful adults. Youth noted that the program leaders included them in the decision-making process – often asking them for their opinion about how to work on projects or what kinds of experiences they wanted to get through the program. Getting support and constructive criticism from these adults was especially helpful when youth were practicing a challenging activity (e.g., speaking in front of a camera). Finally, program youth gained an appreciation for hard work and the importance of media as a vehicle for sharing information and opinions. For example, youth noted that they are more critical when they watch TV and movies now because they have seen the work and effort involved. They also better understood that media can be used to share messages with the world when they otherwise feel that their voices are unheard.

This program also impacted the TCNJ undergraduate students involved, one of whom is a co-author of this article. For our students, it was especially inspiring to see how the program facilitators fostered an atmosphere of learning and respect during each and every session. Supportive relationships with program mentors encouraged the youth to feel confident enough to explore their identities, commit to skill development, and seek guidance from others involved in the program including college students. The perspective of the undergraduate co-author, nicely illustrates the experience:

My experiences working with Beyond Expectations as a college student sparked my interest in research and community development programs. Up until this experience, most of my psychology classes in college had focused on laboratory research with undergraduate participants. Collaborating with a community partner gave me a first-hand look into community-based research and the effort required to overcome the financial, logistical, and personnel obstacles that are often associated with it. I also gained a stronger understanding of the vital roles that psychology researchers play in the creation of effective development programs for vulnerable youth. It is important to develop programs that young people believe are worthwhile, and researchers can only accomplish this by paying attention to what youth can contribute. The young people in Beyond Expectations provided valuable input and feedback about the program that were based on the challenges they faced in their lives. I was struck by their honesty and insight into their program experiences and personal situations. Working with this program helped me understand and appreciate the structural issues they face (e.g., aging out of the foster care system) from a different, more personal, perspective.

Based on my experiences, I believe that giving college students the opportunity to participate in community-based research is advantageous for undergraduate students as well as program youth. When integrating college students into this type of project, it is important to ensure that students are comfortable and feel prepared to take on different roles depending on the particular needs of the program on a given day. It is especially helpful to include students who have already done related work (e.g., interviewing youth, helping to lead activities) so they can guide the less-experienced students on-site; this type of strategy can help to reduce anxiety and build students’ confidence. Assigning several students to the same type of task also encourages them to problem-solve together and provides students with shared experiences that they can discuss and reflect on. Perhaps most important, faculty mentors should follow up program sessions with assignments designed to help students process their experiences in meaningful ways, such as writing personal reflections, discussing experiences with classmates, and connecting their experiences to the existing scientific and professional literature. It can be easy to overlook parts of the experience during hectic program sessions, so it is important that students are guided to see the broader implications of their participation. For me, it has been so rewarding to recognize that I was involved in a project that will influence youth, community leaders, and researchers developing future programs for youth living in and near Trenton.

The support of SCRA mini-grant funds has allowed Beyond Expectations to continue offering youth programs year-round, and the organization regularly posts updates about program efforts via its blog:



Catterall, J. S., Dumais, S. A., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth. (Research Report #55). Washington, DC.: National Endowment for the Arts.

Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. (2011). The Adolescent Brain: New Research and Its Implications for Young People Transitioning From Foster Care. St. Louis, MO: Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

New Jersey Department of Education (2011) 2010-11 School Report Card.  Retrieved February 25, 2013 from http://education.state.Organization

Osgood, D. W., Foster, E. M., Flanagan, C., & Ruth, G. (Eds). (2005). On Your Own Without a Net: The Transition to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). State & Country QuickFacts: City X (City), New Jersey. Retrieved January 13, 2013, from


He Len Chung, PhD & Laura Plishka, BA

Eds. Kyrah K. Brown, PhD and Jasmine A. Douglas, MA

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