A Lesson in Paying Forward Learner-Centered Experiences

Learner Voices   28 April 2021
By Jenna Felsen, CAPS Alumni Network


When we recognize and acknowledge the unique gifts and contributions that we each bring to the table, we are better able to match up students with a mentor who can address their unique needs and career questions.

Jenna Felsen
President and Founder, CAPS Alumni Network

Learner-centered environments focus on the development of deep, lifelong relationships within their communities. One function that ensures the longevity of such relationships is the creation of alumni networks. They are vehicles through which alums—representing a myriad of lived experiences and professional industries—can support young learners and their exploration of unique interests and potential career paths. A group of alumni from Blue Valley CAPS, led by Jenna Felsen, recently launched their own alumni network. Jenna describes their motivations for doing so below.

Imagine a learning environment where students are encouraged to create their own curriculum, unearth their passions, and be the entrepreneur of their learning journeys. Sounds too good to be true, right? 

Wrong. This is the profession- and project-based learning model that guides the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS): a program that empowers students to discover their unique career path and build professional skills based on their unique strengths—whether it requires post-secondary schooling or not. 

From the moment I entered the program in 2014, I couldn’t get enough. I deeply immersed myself in this unique learning experience, taking advantage of every opportunity that came my way—from internships and networking events to client-facing projects I co-designed with businesses and community partners.

CAPS gave me the opportunity to lead peer teams (like when I spearheaded the creative and media outreach efforts for CAPS’ largest annual fundraising/networking event), connect with senior professionals from a variety of industries, and learn unique skills I never imagined I’d gain at 17 years old. My mentors at CAPS dared me to dream and equipped me to excel in college and beyond.

As I look back on my experiences, I am grateful for the many gifts they provided me: a clear career path, the confidence to craft a unique learning experience tailored to my interests, and a supportive network of peers and adults that will last a lifetime. With so much gained through my CAPS experience, I decided, after graduating college and entering the workforce, to give back by bringing a unique idea to life with a few of my peers. 

Paying Forward the CAPS Model

In August 2020, we launched an alumni-led organization called the CAPS Alumni Network, through which we empower other alumni to both fulfill their potential as leaders and pay their experiences forward to current CAPS students.

Alumni serve as perfect ambassadors for the CAPS model. With fresh industry experience, a spirit of charity, and a hunger to learn, we are committed to leveraging our network as a force for good through offering mentorship to CAPS students, contributing our diverse skills and bold ideas to the workplace, and showing up in our communities as changemakers. 

With industries rapidly changing and our early years as young professionals being the time when we truly evolve, it’s important to look to our alumni to provide insights for how we can continuously improve the CAPS model. We are well positioned to illuminate career possibilities for current students and help them apply what they discover in the classroom to carve out their own unique path.

Making This Uniquely Our Own

In my conversations with alumni, while building the alumni network, we recognized a common theme that makes the CAPS model so effective: the freedom given to learners to visualize themselves in their dream career. 

In practice, this is enabled by instructors who serve as facilitators of learning opportunities, rather than rigid followers of class syllabi. In my case, I developed a strong urge to pursue what I want to do, rather than what I should do. I learned to be the champion of designing my career, where I’m seeking to make my unique mark in the banking and finance industry.

In the spirit of that freedom, the CAPS Alumni Network is guided by the following principles:

  • We prioritize people and connections: People and relationships come before the planning of events or the designing of opportunities we create for students. When we recognize and acknowledge the unique gifts and contributions that we each bring to the table, we are better able to match up students with a mentor who can address their unique needs and career questions. Moreso, when we empower alumni to take the lead in speaking about their distinct professions in group settings, students become inspired and energized, because they’re able to visualize themselves stepping into similar roles just a few years down the road. 
  • We let students lead: This is vital to the culture of the CAPS learning model. We embody the CAPS spirit and liberate students to discover their passions, lead teams and initiatives through real and meaningful client-facing projects, explore new interests through initiating their own projects, and challenge the status quo of how education prepares students for the workplace.
  • We own it: Every participating alumni takes ownership of the alumni network’s success, which is highly dependent upon their commitment to amplifying student voices and cultivating student agency when guiding young learners. Alumni are fully entrusted to carry our network’s torch and serve CAPS’ learners in ways that are most meaningful to their specific needs and aspirations.
  • We ask for help: We quickly discovered there is no rule book. While we don’t always know how to execute all of our plans, we are always open to asking for feedback and learning from our experiences. 
  • We don’t let “limitations” limit us: In the middle of a pandemic, it’s easy to get discouraged trying to facilitate and create an alumni network, given the limitations on in-person meetings. But, in fact, the virtual environment has benefited us in ways we never imagined: We learned to meaningfully collaborate, and share stories of resilience and self-discovery, with peers across the country (and world) through the use of technology.

Since launching our CAPS Alumni Network, we have seen incredible responses from our alumni. We have increased our LinkedIn membership from 500 to 900+ alumni, facilitated numerous Zoom networking sessions, and launched a podcast where we highlight student success stories, as told by alumni.

And, while we are still in the early stages of building out the CAPS Alumni Network, the potential to build an expansive community of immensely talented individuals is extremely exciting. 

Here are some thoughts from members of the committee regarding the value it continues to bring to their life:

Antonio: My experience in the CAPS program confirmed my interest in studying Computer Science in college and jump started my career by enabling me to get an internship before college. I joined the committee to provide current students with the knowledge they need to decide on their studies through mentorship and connection with alumni. The thing that excites me most is cultivating the connection between alumni and current students through our speaker series,

Sydney: CAPS was the highlight of my high school experience and still the professional experience I’m most grateful for since it helped me find my passion and major. I’m honored to be a part of the committee because I believe wholeheartedly in the CAPS mission and I wish all young professionals could be a part of an experience like CAPS. I hope the alumni network is able to strengthen ties between CAPS graduates and to build a channel of connections that keeps the CAPS spirit alive well past high school graduation.

Lauren: CAPS served as a launch pad in many ways, including providing a space grounded in gaining real world experience and skill sets. I joined the CAPS Alumni Committee to give back to a program that did a ton for me, professionally and personally. Being a part of the alumni network excites me to reconnect with my previous colleagues, grow my existing network, and see what other CAPS alumni are up to nowadays!

We Evolve

As we scale the CAPS Alumni Network, we hope to serve as a model for other CAPS locations across the nation. While we currently serve the immediate Blue Valley CAPS community, we hope to encourage other CAPS programs across the country to engage their alumni in a greater capacity. Our aim is to create a unified network for our peers to tap into for mentorship and career connections. We feel confident it will add value to the lives of all those who have been touched by the CAPS program.

Whether it’s a student, young alum, or a more experienced alum, we envision a network linked together through a shared vision: one which encourages curiosity, creativity, and interdependence through shared experiences and the collective exploration of new ideas.

As leaders and the architects of our career paths, we want to empower one another to make powerful contributions. This is the manifestation of a CAPS education that pushed us to be creators and innovators—unleashed to reimagine what education can be and how it should prepare learners for a bright future of their own making.

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