The students who attended CFES’ 26th annual conference in Burlington, Vt., this weekend learned more people have their backs than they might realize.

“At CFES, we’re family,” said Carlos Grimes, a CFES alumnus who graduated from Ithaca College in the spring. “CFES showed me that I could find a family wherever I go.”

The two-day event brought together 325 students, educators, funders and board members to the event, called Recasting College & Career Readiness. That group, from 120 schools in 20 states and Ireland, learned first-hand the ways they could lean on CFES for help: While CFES Scholars toured the University of Vermont and bolstered their knowledge of the Essential Skills, six must-have attributes including networking, leadership, agility, perseverance, goal-setting and teamwork, educators held sessions on building mentor networks, participated in an Oracle Academy-sponsored session about ways to teach computer science in every school and learned to incorporate those Essential Skills into their curricula, among many others. 

Grimes, who grew up in Harlem and is now a program facilitator with the Governor’s Committee on Scholastic Achievement in New York, credited CFES with helping him get to college. Once there, though, he acknowledged that his first instinct was to keep to himself: He even ponied up an extra $2,000 for a single room. But he soon realized that community was critical to success.

“You have to be open to the idea of asking for help, and finding the help that you need,” Grimes told the students, all of whom come from underserved communities.

It was a message repeated often at the conference. Leland Melvin, a former NASA astronaut who flew on two Space Shuttle flights, credited his success to several factors – but that having a support system willing to believe in him even when he was down on himself was one of the most important.

“There are times in your life you will want to give up,” said Melvin, who wore his royal blue, NASA-issued flight suit, complete with mission patches. At NASA, despite a training injury that temporarily cost him his hearing, he persisted in pursuing his dream of space flight. In college, he relied on the help of a professor to help him survive a cheating allegation that could have derailed his athletic scholarship and a brief career in the NFL. “You don’t have to have 20 friends. Find the people in your life who want to be with you because they care about you.”

More than 100,000 CFES Scholars have benefited from that kind of caring network since the group began its work in 1991. Of the 21,500 students served by CFES in the 2016-17 school year, nearly all visited at least one college campus or participated in mentoring, while 2,430 graduated high school and continued to college.

In addition, 2,300 CFES Scholars tried the Brilliant Career Lab, a new initiative developed with GE aimed at helping students find careers that suit their skills and interests.

Workforce readiness and building those college-to-career connections are an increasingly important part of CFES’ work. It’s why Rick Dalton, CFES’ president and CEO, announced at the conference that the group – long known as College for Every Student – would soon be changing its name.

“‘College for Every Student’ doesn’t quite describe exactly what we do any more,” Dalton said. College, including community colleges and trade schools, remains as important as ever to helping students break the cycle of poverty. As an organization, CFES is attacking that challenge from several fronts. College is one way to do that. So are the Essential Skills, which have “transformational value,” said Dalton, who added that practices such as mentoring, leadership and building pathways are also critical to helping students pursue futures at a time when skills required for many careers are changing at breakneck pace.

For many of the students at the conference, the messages they heard from the speakers resonated. Like from Scott Pioli, the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, who urged students to give back “If you remember anything I say, please remember: To whom much has been given, much will be required,” said Pioli. 

Or from Cheryl Wills, an award-winning anchorwoman who told of her story in tracing her family’s lineage to an enslaved man who fought for the Union in the Civil War. “That’s my biggest advice to any young person - don’t take a step back, take a step forward,” Wills said. “And whoever stays with you, you just hold onto them tight. And you trust them.” 

Or from Kelli Wells, the executive director of education for the GE Foundation, who led a session aimed at helping young women develop the skills and confidence necessary to pursue careers in whatever they want. “My first lesson is: I want you to be ready,” she said. “You are smart, you are capable, and nobody can take that away from you except you. People already believe in you. You need to take that power and settle it inside yourself.”

As Tinesha Cumberbatch prepared to board a bus back to Brooklyn at the end of the conference, the message that she can pursue a career and get out of the home was particularly inspiring. “There’s more jobs out there for women, more opportunities,” said Cumberbatch, a senior at the Brooklyn Institute for the Liberal Arts considering several SUNY institutions.

That wasn’t exactly news to them – but it isn’t something they hear every day. “People don’t speak on it a lot. Kelli spoke on it,” said her colleague, junior Jada Moffatt.

“Now we’re going to run with it,” Cumberbatch said.