February 28, 2019

Twenty-three-year-old Blanca María Dinarte Romero knew from a young age that she was meant to become an educator. But she has faced obstacles on every step of her professional journey.

First, Dinarte-Romero worried her family’s economic struggles would keep her from attending college. But by working hard, she earned a scholarship to Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador, where she specialized in preschool education and eventually graduated magna cum laude.

Blanca María Dinarte-Romero

Then, though she was top of her class, Dinarte-Romero met with much disappointment as sought employment after graduation. “I was desperate,” she says. “I even began thinking about looking for jobs outside of my field, whether it be sales or anything else.”

Like Dinarte-Romero, young people around the world are facing more challenges than ever while seeking employment in a modern workforce — even if they have a college degree. Communities everywhere face staggering unemployment rates as educational systems fail to prepare both young people and adults for the changing nature of work.

Career development centers can make a difference.

Through our signature WorkLinks approach, World Learning works in communities around the world to help educational institutions build these centers and connect students with potential opportunities. We’ve seen firsthand how career centers help young people come to see higher education as a way to achieve their goals. Altogether, we have reached 52,989 youth through 24 career center in three regions of the world. In El Salvador, through the USAID-funded Higher Education for Economic Growth Project, implemented by RTI International in partnership with World Learning and Rutgers University, we established five career development centers at five universities in the country: Universidad Francisco Gavidia, Universidad Don Bosco, Universidad de Oriente, Universidad Centroamericana, Universidad Catolica de El Salvador.

These career centers have been a game-changer for many Salvadoran students, including Dinarte-Romero.

In early 2018, Dinarte-Romero reached out to her university’s career center. “From my first experience with the career center, the staff was very kind and willing to help,” she says. Career center staff provided feedback on her résumé and sent her daily emails filled with job-hunting tips and information regarding available job opportunities. It wasn’t long before Dinarte-Romero landed a job interview and, by July, she was employed as a technical assistant in the Child Care Module at Ciudad Mujer, a government program dedicated to improving the lives of Salvadoran woman.

Career center participants at the Universidad Catolica de El Salvador.

Carolina Melara also credits her university’s career center with linking her to the working world. Melara knew that job opportunities were slim in her field when she enrolled at the Universidad Catolica de El Salvador (UNICAES) to study journalism and communications. She took advantage of the university’s career center not only to help her land an internship through its job placement services, but also to prepare her for that internship so that she might leave a good impression on her employers.

“The career center provided us with a variety of techniques to be able to arrive to a place and say: this is who I am, this is who I represent, and this is what I came to do,” she says.

Those consultations paid off. With the help of the career center, Melara landed an internship with a business that later hired her before she even graduated. She is now in charge of the company’s brand new institutional communications department.

El Salvador’s new fleet of career centers have also proven helpful to students who prefer to create their own employment opportunities—and helpful to the country itself given entrepreneurship’s critical role in creating new jobs and new lines of production.

Melissa Ruíz, a fifth-year chemical engineering student at the Central American University (UCA), is one of those young entrepreneurs. Since 2017, Ruíz has launched two small agricultural businesses — and she says her university’s career center was a key part of her success.

Melissa Ruíz.

From the beginning, 23-year-old Ruíz saw a great opportunity to develop her skills at the career center. Curious about the campus newcomer, she applied to participate in an entrepreneurship workshop and then discovered that the career center also offered social skills workshops to help students improve their communication. “I quickly connected with my colleagues, which strengthened my empathy, something essential to my work,” she says.

In 2018, the career center helped Ruíz obtain a paid internship with Ingenio La Cabaña, a sugar production company that emphasizes community engagement. The internship was a tremendous help to Ruíz, who was in the initial stages of launching Yec Tunal, her small business that sells wines made from fruit grown by small, country farmers.

These experiences proved so enriching that Ruíz went on to participate in an entrepreneurship workshop with the Department of Business Administration at UCA, followed by an academic internship at EARTH University in Costa Rica, a private nonprofit university that focuses on sustainability. During her six-week exchange to Costa Rica, Ruíz learned what she needed to know to develop a second project producing concentrate for pigs from the pulp of coffee beans. She has since entered that project to compete in INNOVA EMPRENDE, a government initiative that supports entrepreneurs.

Once again, the career center was there to help her as she developed her application for the competition. In consultation with career center staff, Ruíz created a business profile, determined her projected sales, and distributed capital. Now she’s just waiting to find out if hers is among the winning projects. “In moments of need, the career center has always been on our team’s side,” Ruíz says.

Overall, World Learning’s career centers have made a difference for young Salvadorans. From 2016 to 2018, there was a 25 percent increase in internship placements for students at these five universities — and 26 percent of those students were eventually hired by the company where they interned thanks to the skills they learned on the job, in school, and at the career development center. As Lic. Mario Dimas, director of the career center at UCA, explains: “These companies receive students who understand how to work in real life.”