As park and recreation professionals, we often discuss not only how to impact the quality of life for our residents, but also how to ensure this great industry continues to improve with our youngest professionals. I was very fortunate during my undergraduate and graduate studies to have professionals who believed in me and challenged me to be the best that I could be. These early mentors shaped the professional that I have become.
One of my greatest passions over the course of my career has been providing young professionals with the preparation needed to excel in their current position and to prepare them for future opportunities. As the executive director of the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association, I worked with the board to create a Leadership Academy: a three-tiered, six-month program that provides a well-rounded exposure to leadership and supervisory skills. Then, when I became the executive director of Illinois’ Park District of Oak Park, I worked with the leadership team to design a paid, one-year fellowship that includes a rotation through all aspects of the park district, from programming, park maintenance and human resources, to finance, safety, facility management, marketing and more. This fellowship provides the hands-on approach, with the real-life successes and failures that are so important for growth.
Depending on the department, the fellow spends from two to six weeks working with a variety of leaders in each department to learn about their specific area. For example, in the parks and planning, the fellow spends time with the turf manager, building and parks supervisors, and the superintendent of parks and planning. Along the way, the fellow has specific deliverables, and at the end of the program the fellow receives help with identifying job opportunities and making contacts as appropriate. This program not only is a great career development opportunity for young professionals, but also provides our leadership team with the perspective of a recent graduate and a glimpse into the future leaders of the industry.
Jamaal Hines, who completed our inaugural fellowship program, provided us with the following feedback:
A Fellow’s Reflection
Regardless of your field of study, there are three areas of priority that are emphasized during one’s journey through postsecondary education: professional development, job attainment and career prosperity. While professors and other influential figures in the lives of college students spend an ample amount of time promoting professional growth, leadership, occupational awareness and interview preparedness, there is no guarantee that your degree will secure a professional position in your desired career field. To be a standout applicant in today’s job search processes, one must possess a suitable amount of both educational achievement and occupational experience.
Often, just having a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree is not enough to land an entry-level position. Like me, many recent graduates are left wondering, “How am I supposed to gain experience if entry-level positions won’t provide any hands-on job knowledge or applicable skills training?” With both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, I was overlooked by multiple employers for applicants with more years of experience in the field. Fortunately, the Recreation Fellowship at the Park District of Oak Park offered the opportunity to develop my skill set and gain the experience needed to boost my marketability.
With the cross-departmental training and the multifaceted nature of the fellowship, I gained an equal amount of experience within both recreation programming and facility management at all levels of the organization, instead of being bound by one job title and one list of corresponding responsibilities. As a result, I’ve gained a much greater understanding of how all the departments work together in the functionality of a community recreation organization.
This fellowship has enabled me to expand on my professionalism, versatility, leadership and organizational management skills in a way that would have been unattainable in an entry-level position. Moreover, it has set me on an expedited career development pathway, as it has exposed me to areas to which I would not have otherwise been exposed. Furthermore, this experience will help me to work more effectively with all departments once I land a full-time position. I believe this opportunity has now put me a step ahead of the competition, and for that, I am extremely grateful!
Continuing to Grow Professionals
As we wrap up our first year of the fellowship, I can attest that the process takes the time and dedication of all the professional staff. It also highlights the importance of teaching not only the skills to do the job, but also an understanding of the “why” of the things we do for our community. With the knowledge and experience from the first year, we have realigned the amount of time spent in some of the departments to ensure the fellow is in a department when key activities are occurring. We have also added more frequent check-ins with the fellow’s supervisor.
The park district is again offering this opportunity for 2019–2020, and I hope other agencies may be interested to learn how they too can make a lasting impact on the profession. For more information about the fellowship, contact Jan Arnold.
Jan Arnold is the Executive Director for the Park District of Oak Park.