Jessica Streufert (center) poses with student participants on the Rotunda steps during a trip to Charlottesville. (Photo credit: The House Student Leadership Center)
For Curry School alumna, youth advocate, and three-time UVA graduate Jessica Streufert, education is the vehicle for success – and innovation is the fuel that keeps it moving.
Streufert is the director of programs and administration at The House Student Leadership Center, a nationally recognized youth development organization that provides out-of-school time programs for pre-teens and teens in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Driven by a mission to improve the lives of children, the Center connects youth to a number of initiatives that improve health, education, and employment outcomes.
Born and raised in Woodbridge, Virginia, Streufert knows both the area and the organization well. She first got involved with the Center in high school, and she credits the organization with opening her eyes to the power of the youth voice and heightening her awareness of social justice and public service initiatives.
Streufert continued her work with the Center into college, serving as a volunteer and a member of summer staff while earning her undergraduate degree from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. She joined The House Student Leadership Center staff full-time in 2009. In spring 2017, she completed both an Executive MBA and a Master of Education through UVA’s dual MBA/MEd program, which combines the expertise of the Curry School of Education and the Darden School of Business for a program focused on innovation in education reform.
Ultimately, Streufert’s goal is to drive the Center’s culture of innovation forward, attracting more young thinkers and leaders and continuing to grow the impact of the center’s work. Here, she shares why innovation in education matters and what it’s like to work on the front lines of youth development in our nation’s capital.
What is innovative about The House Student Leadership Center’s unique approach to youth development?
At The House Student Leadership Center, we design and implement innovative strategies to uncover student potential. The Center gives access to resources to ensure that students excel in their aspirations, bridging the gap between the support services youth need and what the schools and community are designed and resourced to provide. Our symbols, beliefs, values and practices encourage a strong focus on early help to support all young people to success.
Addressing more than one critical challenge at once, the Center offers diverse and comprehensive services in one spot to improve education, employment, and health outcomes for high-potential, under-resourced students. A differentiator of the Center is its holistic, cross-sectional strategies that create a coordinated plan to support academic and lifelong success, which is a more effective approach to youth development.
What drew you to this type of work in the first place, and what keeps you there?
The opportunity to connect people to our kids for collective action and innovation. Education as an institution has remained highly unchanged, with systemic issues that limit student progress. There is an abundance of untapped potential in low-income communities. We can’t expect change if we continue to do things the same way.
When I first started working with the Center, I found an important connectedness and commitment to the importance of its mission and my goals on a personal level. Many of the ideas we advance at the Center are profoundly unconventional, but on the frontlines of what’s necessary.
What is a typical day on the job like for you?
Daily, I lead across multiple sectors with key thought leaders on topics of youth development, holistic youth strategies, and youth empowerment. Our common set of goals include cross-sectoral interventions to compel youth to reduce negative outcomes. At the Center’s Northern Virginia site where I am based, 34 school buses arrive daily before and after-school where young people are given resources and opportunities to succeed through mentorships, adequate nutrition, access to mental health services, and leadership training that encourage their active involvement now.
The Center’s hours of operation are 12 hours a day with on-call staff during the nights and weekends. It is a place that rarely sleeps. The team has a certain energy, connectedness and lift-up spirit that keeps me on the front lines with students that I believe will shape our world.
How do you personally define success in your work? What needs to happen for you to go to bed feeling satisfied or proud of what you’ve accomplished?
At the Center, we develop resiliency in students, teaching them to preserve and overcome despite any given circumstance. Expectations have a direct impact on what students believe and accomplish. I also want to transfer a growth mindset. This is the genesis of students’ hard work, the ability to embrace challenges, and persistence. At the end of each day, I want to know that I stood for justice and opportunity.
How has your graduate education helped you in your work at The House Student Leadership Center?
Curry School coursework provided a foundation for curriculum and instruction, while Darden’s Executive MBA program included an integrated perspective of general management across functional units of a business. In combination, the dual-degree provided an understanding of the value of data-driven decisions to guide education program development and improve effectiveness to meet community needs with available resources.
Curry helped me further understand educational standards and strategies to implement out-of-school programs that support in-school learning. It inspired me to look at this work from a broader perspective and to ultimately make a bigger impact in the field by focusing on innovative strategies and capacity-building.
My time at Curry was essential to build my foundation of educational strategies and methods. Now that I’ve completed my degree, I am using these skills to further my mission to guide young people through high school and on to college, preparing the next generation of talent. As a three-time alumna of the University of Virginia, my Cavalier pride runs deep. I’m truly grateful to UVA.
What advice would you give to someone who might want to pursue a career in youth development?
To keep up with the challenges facing youth today, your résumé should be grounded in current research and best practices, as well as hands-on work and leadership. Armed with both academic and practical knowledge, a great candidate is prepared for countless settings and scenarios in the education field. You also must be able to demonstrate perseverance and grit, passion for this type of work, and the willingness to differentiate strategies to meet the individuality of the youth you serve.
What do you love most about your job?
We live in a hope-challenged world, but I have the potential to create hope each day. Youth today are up against many obstacles, with increased youth stressors stemming from interrelated factors. The system and conditions of today’s youth wake me to activism to build essential hopefulness in students. Hope is a major source of motivation for positive change among youth.
On a personal level, getting to build relationships with students holds many rewards. In the end, it’s equipping them with tools they need to create change. I can’t think of anything more valuable than that.