Finding your passion is job one

Panelists offer advice to students with disabilities about career paths.


On a brisk Tuesday morning, students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and Island employers gathered for an hour-long discussion panel to talk about careers, internships, and plans after high school.

Sharon Engler, a transition specialist for disability services with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, hosted the panel, part of the community service’s School to Employment Program. STEP focuses on helping students with disabilities or who have other barriers to employment find jobs in the community through workshops, presentations, and internships.

The Tisbury Police, South Mountain, the Steamship Authority, the Vineyard Transit Authority, Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital constituted the panel and were each represented by an employee speaker.

Engler asked each speaker to take a few minutes to discuss the five components of the Massachusetts Work Based Learning Plan, which is a plan put together by the Department of Education to help students enhance their professional skills. The five components of the plan are attendance and punctuality, workplace appearance, accepting direction and constructive criticism, motivation and taking initiative, and understanding workplace behavior.

The speakers also talked about their individual career journeys: how they ended up on-Island, what drove them to pursue their career, and what lessons they learned.

Matt D’Andrea, superintendent of schools, explained to the students that you should always “do what you love.” Having a knack for math, D’Andrea originally pursued accounting in college. He also tutored his classmates and friends who had trouble with math. Learning he enjoyed teaching math more than learning about accounting, he decided to become a teacher. An opening for a degree program in education administration presented itself to D’Andrea, who took the classes and earned the degree. “I was always looking for opportunities to do other things,” he said.

Once his predecessor retired, D’Andrea applied for the superintendent position and got it. D’Andrea encouraged students to take advantage of opportunities in their field and learn new skills to advance themselves.

One of the students asked D’Andrea what his biggest failure and biggest regret were.

D’Andrea was candid, saying he had had many failures but that, “the important thing with failure is that you learn from failure…you don’t give up when you fail. You try again and you move on.” His biggest regret was having started his career with accounting, which he was not passionate about, instead of teaching.

Angie Grant, the administrator of the VTA, got her first job with the Chappy ferry when she was 14 years old and attending MVRHS. Having always loved the sciences, Grant studied biochemistry in college and during summers she drove a bus for the VTA. “I take my love for science and still apply that today,” she said, noting VTA projects that involve green alternatives and renewable energy.

Grant emphasized that working at the VTA doesn’t necessarily mean being a bus driver. Many jobs that include administration, accounting, grant writing, and much more are involved in running the VTA.

John Abrams, CEO and owner of South Mountain, an architecture, engineering, building, and renewable energy firm, had a different path than the traditional high school-to-college-to-job route. “Mine was a very unconventional path. When I graduated from high school in 1967 it was the height of the ‘60s. I tried college several times, but there were way too many exciting things to do than sit in a classroom,” he said. Abrams said he “went on a long, six-year hippy odyssey,” to find himself and learn new skills.

By chance, Abrams ended up on the Island and took an opportunity to build a house. Abrams kept working and building homes and eventually started South Mountain.

The speakers had a Q and A session with the students, who were quiet and not eager to ask questions. Hands quickly shot up when a Dairy Queen gift card was offered to a random student who asked a question. The winner was a student who asked Tisbury police officer Scott Ogden how many years of school it takes to become a police officer. Officer Ogden said there were varying levels of education needed depending on the job. Officer Ogden himself obtained an associate’s degree and said a master’s degree is needed for chief of police. “Education is very important, you need at least an associate’s,” he said.

All the speakers had one thing in common: none of them had known exactly what job or career they wanted. They all had something they were passionate about and followed that path wherever it took them.

Each speaker agreed with the five components of the learning plan, emphasizing taking pride in your work and motivation to learn more; all things they look for when hiring new employees.

Once the panel ended students went up and talked to the speakers, eager and interested in their jobs and what kinds of employment opportunities were available for high school students during the summer.

Engler thanked the panel of speakers and reiterated her message to students, leaving them on an inspirational note. “I’m here to help students with disabilities look for jobs and look for college readiness,” she said. “There’s a [multitude of] jobs out there…There’s a lot of different things you can do.”