Blind faith: Christensen of Harlan becomes iJAG State President
HARLAN — Solutions for today’s challenges may lie within the unseen and unexplored trials. When Ezekiel “Zeke” Q. Christensen, a 16-year-old sophomore, signed up for the new iJAG class at Harlan Community High School in the fall of 2023, his friend mentioned it was an easy class with field trips. Little did Christensen know, the class would not only have a lasting and important impact on him, but he would become an important figure for the program, being elected the iJAG State President.
As educators work to bring relevance and meaning to the skills taught in classrooms, finding ways to bridge what is learned in the classrooms and the skills needed in the workplace has gained momentum and interest. iJAG is the Iowa affiliate of the nonprofit nationwide JAG (Jobs for American Graduates) organization. iJAG started out as 6 programs offered in one Iowa high school in 1999 and has grown to 155 iJAG programs across the state in middle schools and high schools. Laurie Phelan, a former state department of education official, started iJAG as a nonprofit organization on what she termed as “blind faith” to help every student succeed. Over the last 24 years, iJAG has not only seen growth, but achieved commendable achievements. These include a 97% graduation rate among students in the program, recognition from the National Dropout Prevention Center as a model program, acknowledgement from the Iowa Department of Labor as a Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program, and played a pivotal role in establishing the first learning center, IGNITE Pathways in Woodbine, IA.
Woodbine piloted an IGNITE Pathways school in 2021 which partners with and uses JAG models for teaching. Harlan Community School District started an iJAG program in 2023 with Lori Pilachai, iJAG Education Specialist, as the teacher. What started with 6 students has grown to 58 in its first year alone. Not only that, in a Leadership Development Conference that met in Des Moines, Christensen gave a speech to an audience of over a thousand at the capital about servant leadership. His speech had been chosen amongst 10 others across the state. Each school had one vote to cast, and Christensen was elected as the preinterm State President for iJAG. His term will start the fall of 2024 when the current president from Des Moines North High School, Alontae Gross’s term ends.
The course is student driven. Opportunities are provided, but students lead meetings and take initiative to pursue career shadowing they may be curious about. Christensen leads many of the meetings. Christensen also attended the National Student Leadership Academy to begin his presidential role. On November 30th - December 2nd, Christensen was flown out to Washington D.C. to meet with other iJAG associates across the nation and learn from representatives and iJAG partners about skills in leadership and how to be servant leaders.
One of Christensen’s favorite things about the program and experiences so far is the confidence he has gained from it. Christensen, who also gives thanks to his dad Paul Christensen for his support and acceptance, gives the advice, “ Strive to be unordinary, because being different is probably the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Pilachai is currently searching for job shadowing opportunities for students during or after school hours. After school and weekend internships or apprenticeships are also great opportunities. As part of the coursework, iJAG students are expected to complete 15 hours of community service. “If a company would like to ‘try on’ a student through community service prior to offering a paid position, that could benefit both student and business,” Palachai suggested.
There is specific interest in the following professions: cosmetologist, cook/chef, music, engineer, accountant, nurse, psychologist, welder, architect, IT tech.
“I also have students who are undecided in regards to career goals. Opportunities to shadow a variety of businesses may be helpful for these students,” stated Pilachai. Anyone interested in becoming a partner, can email to Lori.Pilachai@ijag.org.
Though Christensen is not sure exactly what his path as iJAG State President will look like and where it will lead him, the possibilities are endless. A lot of unknowns also surround the program, as the HCSD makes room from its growth by reaching out to the community and businesses for partnerships and awareness and hires on another educator for an additional class next school year. As the world and careers change, the same thinking and solutions must change too. An element of blind faith is needed to close the gaps and explore the possibilities of solutions.
“What this community means to me is hope. There may not be an answer to some questions for those who are confused in what they want to do, but knowing that [iJAG] can be of help, comforts me... Expect the unexpected,” stated Christensen.