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Hammering Home the Value of SkillsUSA

Carpentry students appear on a national broadcast to advocate for the skilled trades.
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Pictured from L-R: Brian Lopez Mejia, SkillsUSA Massachusetts state director Karen Ward, Nyssa Lewis and advisor Jason McCuish. Photo courtesy of Lynn Vocational Technical Institute. Used with Permission.

SkillsUSA carpentry student Brian Lopez Mejia woke up pretty excited on May 4 (combined with a pretty serious case of nerves), knowing he was about to face one of the biggest opportunities of his life. Down the hotel hallway, fellow student Nyssa Lewis was dealing with her own anxieties. The chapter officers were used to representing their high school — Lynn Vocational Technical Institute (LVTI) in Lynn, Mass. — as well-spoken and polished advocates, but this was next level. Today, the students would appear on national television, meet a football star and each receive a $5,000 scholarship from industry. It certainly wasn’t a typical Tuesday for the high school seniors.

New experiences were racking up quickly this week: working with a television crew to film scenes at their school, their first time flying, meeting top-level industry partners, and now preparing to talk about the skilled trades to 3.5 million viewers watching a popular morning broadcast. The pair admits they were each pretty jumpy as they put on their shirts, finished their morning grooming and prepared to go meet their instructor, state director, 84 Lumber representatives and the Good Morning America (GMA) television crew.

Nyssa Lewis and Brian Lopez Mejia show their SkillsUSA pride at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute. Used with permission.

Before dawn, the pair practiced a final time for their national television debut with a little coaching from their mentors. Their goal was to raise awareness of SkillsUSA National Signing Day and skilled trades careers. Luckily, they both had lots of SkillsUSA training, true career passion and some dedicated adults who helped prepare them for this groundbreaking moment of being interviewed by GMA anchor Robin Roberts.

Lopez Mejia, the 2020-21 president of the LVTI SkillsUSA chapter, describes the Signing Day trip as magic. “The trip was a blast. From the morning we left until the night we returned, everything was a blur. I still can’t believe we were featured on GMA. I enjoyed spending time with our SkillsUSA Massachusetts director Karen Ward, Nyssa and Mr. McCuish [Jason McCuish, his advisor]. I am thankful for the scholarship and so grateful I was chosen. This is a great helping hand in my future. Overall, the experience was unforgettable.”

Building a Better Community

Lopez Mejia in his carpentry class. Photo courtesy of Lynn Vocational Technical Institute. Use with permission.

As chapter president, Lopez Mejia often advocated for career and technical education, even speaking on the need to close the skills gap. Additionally, he became an inspired young leader in his community of Lynn, creating projects to help disenfranchised people. Lopez Mejia led initiatives to help end veteran homelessness. He also helped promote literacy by raising funds to provide 20,000 free books to children in Lynn. Believing that a career in construction will honor his passion for carpentry while fulfilling a deep desire to give back to those in need, he plans to enroll at North Shore Community College or join an apprenticeship program.

A passion for carpentry ingrained in him since he was young, Lopez Mejia hopes to one day own a contracting company. As a child, he loved the artistry that comes with working with tools and cutting and sawing wood. Lopez Mejia says woodwork allows for his own creative expression. On GMA, he spoke about his childhood introduction to building things. “When I was younger, I loved Legos and building things and just seeing creations I had in my mind then come to life.”

Home is Where You Are

Lewis in her carpentry class. Photo courtesy of Lynn Vocational Technical Institute. Use with permission.

Like Lopez Mejia, Nyssa Lewis graduated in June from the LVTI carpentry program and hopes for a career in construction. Ironically, her deep passion for carpentry comes from growing up without a stable home. According to Lewis, “Carpentry interests me because my family used to punch holes in the wall and I wanted to be able to fix them. When I arrived at Lynn Tech, my carpentry instructor taught me how to fix those holes. This grew my love for the trade.” An orphan by the time she was a middle school student, Lewis spent time in several group and foster homes, but her gentle heart and caring nature drove an ambition to learn carpentry to change not only her own circumstances but those of others. “I want to build homes for the homeless. Carpentry allows me to help others have the home I always envisioned for myself,” she explains.

Serving as LVTI’s SkillsUSA vice president and senior class president, Lewis has been honing not only carpentry skills but her leadership skill set. A non-traditional student, she broke a few barriers in high school. She was the captain of the wrestling team and she promoted tolerance and inclusivity as a voice for people of color by teaching workshops about race, bias and privilege. She was instrumental in raising thousands of dollars for the homeless population. This fall, she plans to attend community college with the intention of better learning her trade and using those skills to make a home for herself — and many others.

SkillsUSA students from Lynn Vocational Technical Institute. Used with permission

Lewis echoes similar feelings and experiences about the whirlwind adventure to 84 Lumber in Bridgeville, Pa. for Signing Day. (Along with Klein Tools, NC3 and The Home Depot, 84 Lumber was a key sponsor for the event.) “This is something I will remember forever. With it being such a big event and also my first time flying, I was pretty nervous. But everyone was supportive, so that helped me calm my nerves. Mr. McCuish, Karen Ward and Brian are each amazing people, and I was glad to share the experience with them. Being on TV was surreal. I’m still shocked that I received a $5,000 scholarship. That and receiving an iPad was something I wasn’t expecting. Overall, I’m just grateful to SkillsUSA for this experience and opportunity.”

A Teacher’s Pride

Jason McCuish at NLSC.
Photo by Lloyd Wolf.

Advisor Jason McCuish, himself an award-winning SkillsUSA instructor and 2019 Advisor of the Year, says Lewis is her own person. He admires that and takes pride in her path. “To be unique is sometimes impractical, especially in a diverse world. Nyssa is as distinct and unique as young people come. For the past four years, Nyssa’s story has dismantled the norms associated with a young person who lost both parents and lived in group and foster homes since sixth grade. She has overcome the odds to become exceptional,” McCuish explains. He goes on to say, “Nyssa has a story to tell, and we should all recognize her voice. She has the most compelling ideas about the promise her generation can provide: a selfless love for others, a commitment to improving communities, and a love for something we all hold near and dear: a home we create, either with our own hands or with the hands of others.”

McCuish expresses his own excitement about the experience with his students, “As their SkillsUSA advisor and teacher, I am so grateful that they were afforded this special experience. These two worked so hard for four years, not only in their trade and in the classroom, but also out in the community. They are wonderful advocates for SkillsUSA, and for them to receive this recognition was incredible. I am just so proud of both of them.”

Also appearing on GMA from LVTI were principal Carissa Karakaedos, McCuish and carpentry instructor Ken Beaudet, who said on the broadcast there is a need for workers in many skilled trades. “I think almost every company is looking for help,” the carpentry instructor said. In her introduction to the segment, GMA anchor Robin Roberts told viewers the construction industry will need to hire 430,000 more workers in 2021 to meet growing demand.

Shining in the Spotlight

When this unique opportunity for national publicity presented itself, SkillsUSA wanted to make sure the focus was on student success. During the search for students to represent the organization under such a bright spotlight, SkillsUSA Massachusetts director Karen Ward immediately thought of LVTl, one of the top SkillsUSA chapters in the country. “I knew that Nyssa and Brian were construction trades students there and I knew they were both rock stars,” Ward says. “They are great representatives of our program and have done amazing things in the community. They’re the kind of students that we wanted to highlight.”

Ward then worked with advisor McCuish to support the selected students and ensure a positive experience for them — all while maintaining the surprise element of the scholarships as they partnered with the 84 Lumber team to make the day’s events happen. Ward’s experience and marketing expertise helped keep the focus on SkillsUSA during the broadcast, and as she worked with the students and producers, she skillfully made sure the SkillsUSA brand and message remained in the forefront.

While Lopez Mejia and Lewis were the shining stars of Good Morning America on May 4 (and the only students profiled in depth), hundreds of SkillsUSA schools in 27 states and Puerto Rico participated in the 2021 event — most virtually, but a few at in-person events. Each partner played a vital role in the day’s success, too. Supporting SkillsUSA members, partners delivered $80,000 total in scholarships, with 84 Lumber awarding 10 scholarships and The Home Depot granting six. Klein Tools provided merchandise and tools to help some of the students on their career journeys.

NFL quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and NFL Hall-of-Famer Jerome Bettis also served as spokespersons for Signing Day, each appearing on a variety of national sports and news media outlets on May 4 to promote the skilled trades. The result was some of the highest one-day media coverage in SkillsUSA history. Both NFL players have parents working in skilled trades. Bettis, a former running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said, “I’m excited to support this next generation of American essential workers by participating in their national signing day and by helping to spread the message of their commitment to their important career in the skilled trades.”

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