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Sun Chip Girl Meets Lady in Red

Apr 21, 2022

At North Port High School, Jenna Thiel knows well the students who visit her Student Success Center. The Education Foundation of Sarasota County College Career Advisor is quick to engage her students and assess their level of readiness for life after high school. She is careful that no student who visits her center misses the chance to develop a plan. 

One day at the Student Success Center, in the early fall, a busy time for college planning, Jenna noticed an unfamiliar student eating from a bag of Sun Chips. She tried to get the young woman’s attention to no avail. Finally, she just called out, “Hey, Sun Chip Girl, what are your plans after high school?”

Sun Chip Girl was Sofia Nozdracheva, and her plans were in flux. With a passion for architecture, she wanted to continue her education but was unsure where or how to pay for it.

Having made a connection, Jenna began to help Sofia explore options and formulate a plan. And although Sofia became a regular at the Student Success Center, her name stuck: Sun Chip Girl.

Jenna is committed to helping each and every student prepare for life after high school, no matter the pathway. She knows college isn’t for everyone and understands well the ways a job can provide direction and create new opportunities. After graduating high school, Jenna took a gap year and began working an entry-level job in admissions at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers. She enjoyed the job but realized that to take on more responsibilities, she would need more education. 

Jenna’s employer-provided her with a tremendous opportunity: they paid for her tuition, enabling her to earn an A.A. degree. Armed with her A.A., she progressed to the University of South Florida, where she earned a B.A. and an M.A. degree.

Jenna credits this experience with her conviction that starting a career right out of high school can be a great plan. To connect more students to possible careers and job opportunities, she organized a career fair at North Port High in 2019, bringing in a total of 25 local businesses, community groups, and military partners. It was a success, and Jenna was excited to expand the fair the following year. The pandemic quashed those plans, though, and it wasn’t until this year that she could again connect students to local employers and organizations.

With the demand for employees skyrocketing, Jenna had no problem finding participants. Indeed, in mid-April, a total of 50 businesses, community groups, and military partners set up booths in the North Port High gymnasium and made connections with so many of the over 1,200 students who attended.

One of those students was Sofia. And when Jenna noticed her checking out booths, she called her over. She said, “Hey, Sun Chip Girl, you need to go over and talk to Lady in Red.”

Lady in Red was Donna Barrett, CEO of the Charlotte-DeSoto Building Industry Association (CDBIA). The CDBIA is a not-for-profit organization that serves as “the voice of the construction industry” in Charlotte and DeSoto counties. Jenna knew that Sofia, the aspiring architect, needed to speak to Donna.

First impressions are important, and Sofia clearly made a strong impression because Donna and the CDBIA surprised her a few weeks later at school, bearing balloons and a $2,000 scholarship to attend State College of Florida. They also found her a summer internship at a construction company that is part of the CDBIA, which will afford her the opportunity to practice drafting pool cages. She will gain real-world experience as she prepares to pursue her dream of architecture in college.

The Sun Chip Girl wasn’t the only one to make connections and find new opportunities. As Donna later wrote to Jenna, “We had 15 students who were interested in a career in construction…. Our members will be contacting each student to set up a job interview with hopes to start them after graduation.” So many other students met local employers and recruiting officers and learned more about jobs and the military.

The career fair was a great success, which Jenna credits in large part to North Port High students. Regulars at her Student Success Center played a vital role in packing gift bags, moving chairs and tables, and even emceeing. The emcee created a fun, welcoming environment, highlighting businesses that students needed to check out and playing music such as the Village People’s “YMCA” when calling out the local YMCA.

Jenna and her team created an accessible, enjoyable environment where students could meet employers and where those employers could find their next generation of workers. They fostered relationships such as the one between Sun Chip Girl and Lady in Red. And relationships can make all the difference.