Update 7/20/2012: Albert no longer works at the D2 Center. Good luck in your new endeavors, Albert!
This is the third in our series of “Meet the Staff posts. Today we’re talking with Albert Varas.
What’s your role at the D2 Center?
My role is to develop opportunities for career exploration, partnering with the Nebraska Department of Education’s Nebraska Career Connections (NCC) website and the nonprofit and business community. Through these career exploration opportunities, our students can earn hours toward an elective credit at the same time. I also work as a D2 Center Youth Academic Navigator (YAN) and intake specialist.
How long have you worked at the D2 Center?
I’ve been involved from the beginning, and in the past few months I have been expanding career exploration opportunities with D2 Center students and staff.
Tell me about your education.
I graduated from South Miami High School, where Pitbull and U.S. Senator Mark Rubio also went. I played sports and was awarded scholarships to different colleges, and I went to the one that offered me the most money: Midland University (formerly Midland Lutheran University) in Fremont, NE. It was a total culture shock! I have one more semester to complete my Masters in Education Administration and Leadership.
What is your professional background?
I started working with students as a camp counselor during college, and I started working with special populations as a houseparent in a group home. That was my first introduction to students with various risk factors. Then I taught special education – self-contained emotionally handicapped and severely emotionally disturbed students, which is the most restrictive environment besides being in an institution. I taught middle school and then high school. I taught all subjects but my favorites were history and vocational rehabilitation education. Then I moved to Omaha and started working at Building Bright Futures as a project coordinator. When I started, I worked with UNO’s math department and Omaha, Ralston and Millard school districts to help develop the Math Teacher Assistant (MTA) program as that was developed and implemented. I then started to develop projects working with partners to set up career exploration activities with some of the different organizations using Americorps volunteers. I also worked with the Omaha Public Library to promote Tutor.com. Once the D2 Center opened last summer, I was able to use career exploration projects and programs to expand opportunities for students here at the D2 Center.
In the time I have been working with NCC, I’ve learned a lot about different stakeholders in the community who are willing to work with students, and I understand the system and research behind it. That knowledge has helped me provide meaningful career exploration activities for our students. Without that background, it would have taken me time to find connections in the community, and build those relationships. Rachel Jacobson from Filmstreams, for example, has been very receptive and supportive of going there and showing students what she does. So has Jeanine Dickes from City Sprouts Omaha. I call them and say, can we do something together? And they’re very supportive.
Why were you interested in working at the D2 Center?
I was interested in working at the D2 Center because I believe that all youth are capable of graduating from high school and being successful citizens. I am a firm believer in the saying “it’s not how you start that matters, it’s how you finish that counts.” I understand that many students fall into a cycle of bad decision-making and feel that they are unable to steer their life into a positive direction. I want to help those youth realize their potential so that they can have a brighter future and a meaningful life.
What’s your favorite thing about working at the D2 Center?
Working with the kids – having the students tell me what they want to do and then creating those experiences. A lot of students I meet want to be chefs, so I made that the first focus area for our career exploration opportunities.
Generally, working with the kids and letting them know they’re not alone in this, that we’re here to help, and that no obstacle is too big to overcome.
It’s been very fun to see students coming in with few credits and then start earning credits – they start to take ownership, become more motivated, and become excited about their future. That’s one of the things I really like about working here.
Tell me about your family.
I come from a family of educators. My mom and both sisters are educators. My grandfather is my hero. My family came from a different country, they were immigrants and they came here for a better life and struggled but were able to provide my sisters and me with a better life. This has taught me that planning and perseverance and sacrifice pays off in the end. I am married to my beautiful wife Valerie, who is an educator as well, a special education teacher. We have a beautiful dog, Blue.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to be outdoors and do things outside, such as exercising, barbequing, playing sports, hiking, traveling, eating – I like trying different foods and experimenting. I love going to the farmers market. Food is one of my passions – I like understanding where food comes from and educating people on the importance of healthy food and knowing where it comes from. We’re fortunate in Nebraska to have opportunities to eat healthy and local foods. I also like geeking out to documentaries.