Key features of community programs to help marginalized youth and young adults successfully transition to adulthood include mentoring and opportunities for work and leadership roles, according to a Cornell study in Latin America.
The 18-month "action research" project, "Opening Pathways: Youth in Latin America" ("Abriendo Caminos: Jóvenes en América Latina"), engaged four organizations in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia in a process to better understand ways that community programs can make their community a better place for youth and young adults.
"Institutional innovation is needed to support the transition to adulthood," said Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. "The ingredients for success have changed. The institutions that have traditionally fostered the transition to adulthood no longer function well for all or even a majority of youth."
In a global perspective, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are developed and prosperous. However they have very large income inequality and large populations in poverty. While education levels have been rising, they still have low levels of secondary and postsecondary education, high youth unemployment and underemployment, and early childbirth for women.
In prior research, Hamilton and Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program, identified three assets critical for youth to advance in society: a sense of purpose and agency, including having both a life plan and the confidence to enact it; the competence needed to work productively; and connections to others (social capital) to formulate and achieve their goals.
They have identified six common structural features among successful youth-oriented programs that help nurture these assets. They are:
"Our project was designed to test and refine this conceptual framework of developmental assets and structural features," said Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program. The project provided insights into how these elements are created and manifested, she added.
In addition to initial site visits and frequent communication with the partner organizations, the research team organized three conferences during the course of the project to bring the partner organizations together to catalyze learning and exchange.
At the first, teams from each program, including youth, identified critical issues and began to plan action research to explore them. At the second, the teams shared what they had done and learned and planned their next action steps. At the third, they were joined by representatives of foundations, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to discuss themes cutting across the different programs and considered joint actions. Participants agreed that they could benefit from continued expert assistance and networking as they built on what they had learned to improve their programs.
"Rather than being a time simply to tell others what they had done, the conferences proved to be a continuation of action research," said the Hamiltons, who hope to help create a larger network to further address mentoring and employment in particular.
Other members of their action research team included Davydd Greenwood, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology, and six bilingual student research assistants.
The project was supported by Jacobs Foundation in Switzerland.
Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.