Julie Ivan started a SkillsUSA chapter 14 years ago with two interested students. Since then, thousands have come through the Michigan instructor’s program, with many lives changed. As one student told her, “I could have walked the streets of Saginaw, but instead, I walked onto a college campus.”
In her school’s urban environment, most of the students live at or below the poverty line, but nothing stops Ivan from delivering gold-standard leadership and technical instruction. It’s one of many reasons she is SkillsUSA’s advisor of the year.
Her chapter accounts for more than half of the students from Saginaw Career Complex who attend SkillsUSA Michigan’s fall leadership conference. In her culinary, bakery and hospitality program, Ivan values SkillsUSA’s leadership development and competitions equally.
On some lists, Saginaw has ranked as the fourth most violent city in the United States, and there are other challenges. “Our community has lost a lot of industry over the last decade. General Motors has gone out, so we’ve lost,” Ivan says. “When I started teaching 30 years ago, we had 20,000 kids in our school district. We now have 6,000.”
Shrinking student numbers means fewer funds. “Money is tight, and we don’t have everything that all the bigger skills centers might have in the state of Michigan,” she adds. “But I tell the kids, ‘It’s not what you have — it’s from your heart.’ Our students might not have the newest equipment, but if they know how to do the basics in culinary and bakery, it doesn’t matter.”
This past year, her program budget was cut by 50 percent, but it didn’t affect her students, Ivan says. “I told my principal, ‘I will get water out of a stream and the students will not know that we had to go through a financial budget crunch.’ ”
Eight of her SkillsUSA members have made it to the national level of competition. Ivan also serves on Michigan’s technical committee for Culinary Arts, helping to make sure the state SkillsUSA competition reflects national standards.
Ivan is also an expert for the WorldSkills Competition, helping the international technical committee develop standards for the Bakery contest. She was president of the SkillsUSA Michigan board last year.
For all the important roles she plays, Ivan always brings it back to her students. “It comes from the heart,” she reaffirms.
To reinforce the value of creating a path for the future, Ivan brings former students back into her classes as mentors. One of them, who went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America, works as an executive chef.
This real-world example informs current students that without Ivan’s program, “I wouldn’t have had money in my pocket here in Saginaw. You know what? I have money now. I finished my degree. I’m the first in my family out of 14 kids to ever go to college and finish anything.”
Showcasing service to others
At the start of the school year, Ivan tells students, “I’m here to help you to achieve, to learn and to grow.” To help do that, she mixes her technical program with service and professional development activities.
“We do a professional day where we hold interviews at our local college,” she says, where her program graduates come in to help with practice interviews. All of Ivan’s students also participate in an unpaid work opportunity.
“Our school tries to do as many different community service projects as we can,” she adds. Students help create gingerbread houses for a city display, support a shelter for domestic abuse victims, assist at a food bank, and collect items for needy families during the holidays.
“SkillsUSA has changed me as a teacher, and incorporating SkillsUSA has enhanced my curriculum,” Ivan says.
She tells other teachers, “You will not believe the life-changing difference SkillsUSA makes for students and how it can change their futures. Students come out of my program prepared for the workforce or college. It improves grades, attendance and attitude.”