Veronica Nolan ’99: Opening Doors for D.C. Youth
By Ann Pauley
“I love working with teenagers, it’s in my DNA,”says Veronica Nolan ’99 brightly. “They are still young and idealistic, yet on the brink of adulthood. Having a tiny influence on the rest of their lives excites me.”
That passion has motivated Nolan to expand the Urban Alliance Foundation’s commitment to serve a growing number of D.C. youth and, as executive director of the organization, has earned her a solid reputation for being an effective advocate for young people. The mission of the Urban Alliance is to prepare young adults from under-resourced neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., for the world of work and a life of self-sufficiency through education, mentoring and meaningful paid internships. In Nolan’s own words, “we are catapulting young people out of poverty by exposing them to opportunities and giving them the tools to lead a life of financial independence.”
Urban Alliance’s focal point is an internship program that each year places 150 high school seniors in paid positions at area employers, including the World Bank, Marriott, Children’s Hospital and law firms. The students work in the afternoons, Monday through Thursday during the academic year, and full-time during the summer after they graduate from high school. On Fridays, the students participate in workshops on work and life skills, including financial literacy, conflict resolution and time management. Each intern is paired with a mentor at the workplace, and is assigned an Urban Alliance staff person who is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help them work through issues at home, at school and at work and plan for their next steps after high school.
Over the past decade, Urban Alliance has employed more than 1,000 youth. The interns have a 99% high school graduation rate and 88% enroll in college – impressive statistics given the fact that D.C. Public Schools have the fourth highest drop-out rate in the nation and only 29% of D.C. high school graduates enroll in post-secondary education within 18 months of graduation.
Urban Alliance also provides workshops to 200 D.C. youth annually that focus on preparing for work, such as interview skills and how to be a responsible employee. In addition, the organization supports 150 graduates of the internship program each year, helping them make the transition to college and be successful in the work place.
Nolan arrived at Urban Alliance in 2002 as program director after teaching Spanish in D.C. Public Schools for four years through the Teach for America program. Within a year, she was promoted to become executive director at the age of 27. Under her leadership, the program has grown from serving just 40 students at one high school to serving more than 400 students a year across the city.
Nolan is inspired every day by the students she serves. “Andrew almost dropped out of high school – and we just wouldn’t let him,” she says. “He completed an internship, enrolled in college, earned an electrical engineering degree, and now he is an electrical engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton; he is also sponsoring programs to encourage students from his high school to go to college. Another student told me that if he did not have an internship at the World Bank, he’d be on the street dealing drugs.”
For all of the success stories that inspire her, Nolan says, “Maybe what inspires me more are all of the students we turn away since we can only serve the number of youth based on the number of job sites we’re able to acquire. That motivates me to figure out how we can get this program to reach out to more students.”
As executive director, Nolan focuses her time on several priorities. “Staff management is very important to me,” she says. “We have an extremely talented staff. If I can take care of my staff then they can take care of the kids we serve. I make sure that they have the tools they need to be successful.” She also works with volunteers and cultivates the corporate partners that provide internship opportunities.
Nolan also provides financial oversight of the organization and places a high priority on strategic planning. “I always say that you need one foot grounded in where we are today and one foot firmly planted in the future.”
She says that her biggest challenge by far is acquiring the job sites. “We have an employer retention rate of 90%, which is quite good, but that means that we are always looking for new employer partners to maintain the program and we need additional partners to expand the number of internships.”
Nolan says that the economic recession has had a mixed impact. “Because employers have to commit about $9,500 to pay Urban Alliance interns, we are seeing some organizations cutting back on their internship positions – and some companies have gone out of business. On the other hand, as companies are cutting positions, the work load does not diminish and they see that bringing on Urban Alliance interns is a way to get significant work done.” Another challenge that Nolan is addressing is the fact that “Urban Alliance is a little too under the radar, so we are focusing on marketing and communications to be better known.”
One of Nolan’s proudest achievements is that under her leadership, Urban Alliance created a structured program that uses continuous assessment to improve its effectiveness. “All of the systems are in place – training, evaluation, assessment and infrastructure. Because of that structure, we are a pro-active nonprofit organization rather than a reactive nonprofit. The systems are in place and are well-developed, so that when there is a crisis, we can respond quickly while the organization still continues to move forward.”
She says that getting Urban Alliance to that point took a great deal of time and effort and, for her, 12 to 14 hour work days for nearly two years.
Nolan’s innovative and strategic leadership of Urban Alliance earned her a prestigious Exponent Award from the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation in fall 2008. The honor, one of five awarded each year, recognizes strong and effective nonprofit leaders with a track record of achievement who have the potential for future growth and development. Organizations of award recipients receive a grant of $100,000 over two years to be used for leadership development.
In keeping with her forward-thinking outlook, Nolan has a clear view of how she will use the Exponent Award grant. She plans to create a deputy position that will be the director of operations to ensure even greater stability for the organization. “I also really believe in coaching; I have had a leadership coach for several years and I want to continue that,” she adds. Finally, she will focus on curriculum development and training – “we want to create a stand-alone curriculum for youth employment that can be replicated and can expand our reach.”
Nolan’s passion for youth is so strong, yet her path was serendipitous. She was a senior at the University of Virginia, where she was heavily involved in community service, often working with youth in challenging circumstances. On campus, she saw a flier for Teach for America, inviting graduates to teach in an inner city school. She had not previously considered a career in teaching. “I thought, I can do that for two years,” she recalls, so she applied. “I never imagined it would have taken me for the ride of my life. Within a month of teaching, I was hooked.”
Through Teach for America, she took graduate courses in Trinity’s School of Education while working full-time in the classroom, and earned a master of arts in teaching with a concentration in secondary education in 1999. Nolan reflects that “Trinity’s commitment to social justice and education made it a great experience for me. Every one of my professors had been a teacher, so they shared their practical experiences with us. They encouraged us to learn from our peers and they provided time for reflection on our daily classroom experiences. They recognized that we were teaching full-time so they gave us assignments that we could use in the classroom immediately.”
Once she was at Urban Alliance, the teachers she met through Teach for America and the Trinity graduate program provided her with a ready network through which she could expand the program city-wide.
Over the years, several Urban Alliance interns have enrolled at Trinity. Nzinga Lawrence ’09, a psychology major who graduates from Trinity this spring, was a student at Anacostia High School when she first learned about the Urban Alliance program. She interned at the World Bank and at Fannie Mae. Lawrence credits the program with giving her the incentive to keep her grades up in high school and to consider the possibility of attending college. “I had really good mentors who pushed me think about college and exposed me to new opportunities,” Lawrence says. “I learned how to make presentations in front of a group of people, how to present myself in the workplace and how to be myself even when I am outside of my comfort zone.”
At Trinity, Lawrence made the Dean’s List, was elected to Psi Chi, the national psychology honor society, and spent a summer doing community service through the Sr. Seton Cunneen ’65 Summer Fellowship program. She has been accepted to the psychology graduate program at Howard University. She plans to earn her doctorate and teach at the college level.
Lawrence says that Nolan is “really committed to the students. She’s very smart and energetic and she gives you confidence in yourself.” Lawrence believes that her Urban Alliance experience was “very positive and had a great influence on me. It really prepared me for multiple roles in life, and it taught me about how to balance everything.”
Nolan herself knows the importance of balance. To rejuvenate herself, she spends time with friends and family. “I value relationships,” she says. “Going out and sharing a laugh over dinner with friends really restores me.”
Re-energized, she pours her heart into her work. When she first started working at Urban Alliance, she was drawn to its commitment to serving high school youth, but did not realize its impact on each individual teenager. Once she got there, “I absolutely fell in love with the mission. Each student follows his or her own individual path – one size does not fit all. We ask, ‘What are your talents and your dreams and how can we help guide you?’ In some ways, what we do for young people is the last true effort to have a strong impact on the rest of their lives.