Eight hundred eighth-grade students traveled to the Corbin Center for Technology and Community Activities on Tuesday to meet with more than 40 professionals from around Kentucky. Students traveled from Bell, Knox and Corbin school districts for the event, sponsored by Berea College’s GEAR UP Promise Neighborhood program.

Chad Henson and Brett Messer from Knox County Middle School show off an aviation map of Kentucky, which was part of a presentation on aviation careers.

Project director Celesta Riffe spoke about GEAR UP and the event. “One of the things we wanted to make sure our students get is the connection between careers and school. We want them to understand that there’s a link to what they’re learning in the classroom and what happens in the real world.”

Students rotated between sessions that highlighted 14 career clusters as varied as agriculture, business, communications, health science, human services and arts and humanities. Each session featured a three-person panel and students asked panelists questions about their job responsibilities, salaries and training.

Panelists spoke with students about their educational backgrounds and how they planned for and made it to their careers. From left to right, Mark Daniels is a grant writer for Corbin Independent Schools and a screenwriter, Chadd Cole is a freelance visual effects artist, and Robert Lawson is the executive director of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.

Panelist Carla Blanton, of Carla Blanton Consulting, said the most important advice she gave students was to “try and match something that they’re good at with something they love. They’re going to be working for the next 40 to 50 years, so it’s important to find something that they have a passion for.”

Knox County Agriculture Extension Agent Wayne Kirby answers students’ questions about his career experiences.

According to the Kentucky Department of Education, only 21-40% of graduates in Bell, Knox and Whitley counties were college and career ready in 2011. The GEAR UP program works to ensure that all students in participating districts are prepared for college and for their careers. Todd Tremaine, a panelist and an ATF investigator, reinforced the GEAR UP message, saying “it’s never too early to start thinking about your career. These are middle school students, and once you get in high school, you need to start setting a good foundation.”