On College Success: Three questions with Jessica Pliska, The Opportunity Network

The Opportunity Network (OppNet) works with students from underrepresented and low-income communities to help them develop their skills, knowledge, and passions to achieve their college and career goals. We are supporting the expansion of OppNet’s Fellows program, which begins working with high school students in 10th grade all the way through college graduation – from finding their “best-fit” college and transitioning to campus, to engaging in five summers of resume-building internships or enrichment programs, to building the vision, professional skills, and networks that will guide them through graduation, careers, and beyond.

We recently spoke with Jessica Pliska, Founder and CEO, about how the organization is preparing students for college and career success. Read more below, and find the entire “On College Success” blog series here. 

Before we began our discussion, Jessica shared an inspiring story of one OppNet student, Stephanie Vidal…

Stephanie Vidal grew up as the daughter of Dominican emigrants in Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan, filling her days designing and sewing clothes for her Barbie dolls – it seems her passion for fashion and design was always there. Once we met Stephanie during a citywide search for OppNet’s incoming Fellows class, it was clear that OppNet could be a way for her to explore her passion and develop a future and professional path in line with it.

As an OppNet Fellow, Stephanie was able to build her professional network in fashion before even stepping foot on campus as a college student. At OppNet, she met a mentor from fashion house Narciso Rodriguez, who supported her in building the portfolio that would secure her spot at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). And with the additional connections she built through her OppNet community, she secured an internship with G-III Apparel, and was able to build relationships with professionals from Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. She is now a designer for the major boutique retailer, Maurices.

Stephanie’s story is an incredible example of what is possible when opportunity and access connect with a student’s talent and ambition – and I’m so proud that we are able to do that work at OppNet. Because that is how we help to ensure postsecondary success for all students.

Then we got down to business and learned more about Jessica and about the passion that drove her to create OppNet…

What drives your passion for education?

I see education as one of our most powerful tools to ignite human ambition and potential, and most importantly in light of the work we do at OppNet, to forge a more equitable world for our young people. I truly believe the age-old adage that “education is the great equalizer,” but only if those involved in the teaching, learning, and youth development fields approach education as the opportunity to equip people with the information, skills, and experiences to pursue success on their own terms.

This is especially true for those of us serving young people from underrepresented communities. Education is such a critical on-ramp for these students because it can help maximize their potential for lifelong success, unfettered by circumstances or structural inequities.

How does OppNet put students at the center of your approach?

We strive to make sure that everything we do at OppNet is truly student-centered. And by that, I mean that we have meaningfully engaged our student community – current Fellows and OppNet alumni – to tap their insights and unique voices to inform organizational growth. This is because of our fundamental conviction that all students deserve the opportunity to craft and own their paths to and through college and into rewarding careers.

Throughout our college guidance and college persistence programming, we design moments where students can exercise choice in terms of how they engage with content and demonstrate understanding. At the institutional level, we also have a Student Board of Directors and Alumni Leadership Council. These student leadership collectives gather with OppNet team members to create programming experiences, share recommendations, and build community among their peers.

What’s your message to others supporting students to college graduation?

It’s imperative that we respond to the unique needs of underrepresented college students. This means designing supports that allow students to continue clarifying their visions of long-term success beyond college and into a career, while also homing in on the powerful role their identity can play to shape their success in college and after.

This is why our six-year Fellows program is deliberately designed to guide students in determining their “best-fit” college based on their goals and needs, and then thoughtfully support the transition to that college with all the financial, mental, and logistical preparedness needed.

Once there, we aim to bolster their persistence by helping students craft college pathways aligned not only to their talents and interests, but to their professional ambition. Linking the college journey to their career goals for the future makes it more likely that students will thrive, despite the challenges ahead – with a vision for how truly limitless their capability for growth and success can be.

Learn more about what inspired Jessica to launch OppNet ▶️ College completion: building a network of opportunity