AVIATION MANUFACTURER GULFSTREAM HAS ALWAYS AIMED TO BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR AT ITS HEADQUARTERS IN SAVANNAH, GA. THE COMPANY CONTRIBUTES TO LOCAL NONPROFITS, ENCOURAGES ITS EMPLOYEES TO VOLUNTEER IN THE COMMUNITY AND HOSTS CAREER DAYS FOR LOCAL STUDENTS.
But one initiative goes beyond customary corporate outreach efforts and is changing lives in Savannah. Each year, the company’s Student Leadership Program accepts 150 high school freshmen from the Savannah-Chatham County Public SchoolDistrict and helps guide them to graduation and beyond.
In addition to receiving mentoring from both Gulfstream employees and the company’s business partners, program participants also have an opportunity to visit college campuses; hear motivational speakers; engage in intensive, sometimes personal, discussions; and go on a trip toNew YorkCity. The goal is to keep students on track to graduate and put a plan in place for their next step—whether that’s college, the military, or technical training, says Sissy Dixon, community relations specialist at Gulfstream, who oversees the SLP.
“It’s our responsibility as one of the largest employers here to support our community and its children,” she says. While Gulfstream is impacting the lives of students, the program has also raised the profile of the aviation and jet-building company within Savannah and beyond and helped establish strong business networks. “This program has brought people from many businesses together,” says Michelle Hetager, vice president of BB&T Bank, who has volunteered with the program for three years. “When you hear the name Gulfstream, it immediately commands respect, and you know that if they have a hand in it, it’s going to be done well.”
When the Student Leadership Program chooses its incoming freshmen, organizers don’t look for the best and brightest, nor do they focus on students with the most serious problems, Dixon says. Instead, SLP targets students with untapped potential. “We look for students from all walks of life and try to find those who need to be challenged—students who need something more in their educational lives,” Dixon says.
The program taps teachers from each local high school to work with students for all four years. In addition, Gulfstream contributes volunteers and seeks partnerships with local companies to contribute both financially and through mentoring. Those mentors stay with the same group of students throughout the program.
“To have an adult who cares, listens, helps solve problems and encourages them is new for a lot of these kids,” says Bettina Tate, a business and marketing teacher who mentors students fromJohnsonHighSchool. “Some of the students have never been told they could go to college.” Students meet together about eight times a year with their teachers and business mentors, often in a pep rally type of environment featuring aDJ, dancing, motivational speakers and giveaways like iPods. The first year of the program focuses on helping students “find themselves” and determine their interests. In their sophomore year, students start identifying goals and finding the paths needed to reach them. That focus intensifies throughout the program. Mentors like Hetager share their life experiences with the students. “I share a lot with them, the good and the bad, to show them thatI can choose to let things impact me orI can choose to look forward,” she says. In SLP, students get help finding financial aid, filling out college applications, learning to navigate job interviews and dealing with peer pressure. The summer between junior and senior year, the students and mentors visit New YorkCity. Some of them have never been on an airplane before or even out of their own neighborhoods,” says Tate. The SLP “experience changes them and helps them see what’s possible.”
A WISE INVESTMENT
By many measures, the program has been a success. In 2008, its first year, the SLP barely had enough applicants to fill the class of 150. This past year, more than 1,000 students applied. Even more important is the fact that 100% of the students in SLP’s senior class are on track to graduate.
Gulfstream is making a significant investment, in both financial terms and personnel. But the benefits for the company are also noteworthy. Dixon says Gulfstream is creating its own future work force, boosting the graduation rate for its local school district, which can help attract new employees from elsewhere, and establishing positive relationships with other local businesses. The program is also raising the profile of the company. “Beyond financial resources, Gulfstream is also providing its employees’ time,” Tate says. “And sometimes a person’s time is more valuable than money.It puts a face to the company, and it shows us this company has heart.”
Strayer University partners with Gulfstream to educate the company’s work force.