Because of COVID-19, CFES Brilliant Pathways’ 2020 conference was virtual for the first time in its 29-year history. The new format allowed 3,400 participants spanning 10 time zones to watch and interact with experts in education, business and government. Three college presidents, two members of the U.S. House, executives from Netflix, EY, TransPerfect, Helios Education Foundation, K12 Inc., a former ABC News anchor and innovative K-16 educators in Ireland and the United States spoke virtually with the help of a team at CFES headquarters in rural Essex, NY.

The conference explored trends in K-16 education, analyzed the impact of current events for schools and students, and shared new college and career readiness strategies to overcome today’s challenges.

There’s an incredible amount of change occurring right now and it’s not going away. We need to leverage disruption. Change is our friend. Our goal was to show educators, students and our partners how to embrace change and take advantage of the opportunities that come from it.”  – Rick Dalton, CFES President & CEO

Learn from the Experts

Over three days, the conference offered sessions on building college and career readiness, closing the opportunity gap, creating corporate partnerships, supporting families during COVID-19, cultivating active anti-racism in education spaces, and leveraging Essential Skills in the new world.

“Every student regardless of where they’re born, skin color or zip code deserves a high quality education,” said day two keynoter Paul Luna, President and CEO of Helios Education Foundation. “Education is powerful and an equalizer in life.”

Keynote Speaker Leilani Brown, Senior Vice President at K12 Inc., emphasized the importance of students practicing the Essential Skills during COVID-19. “Essential skills are a cornerstone of CFES and K12. They are interconnected, overlapping and indispensable in your life and career. Essential skills will make or break our futures.”

The Impact of College and Career Readiness (CCR) Advisors

One of the main goals of the conference was to help educators and partners support underserved students toward college and career workplace success during COVID-19 and beyond. To make this happen and to narrow the readiness gap, CFES shared its initiative to train 5,000 College and Career Readiness (CCR) Advisors over the next 24 months. “The pandemic has heightened the need for this program,” according to Rick Dalton.  To meet this challenge, CFES is offering virtual CCR Advisor trainings each month and offering professional development certification with its partner, University of Vermont.

A new cohort of 40 CCR trainees attended the conference, starting with a live opening session, followed by daily keynote speakers, at-large panels and workshops. Some sessions focused on virtual college tours, paying for college, career readiness, CCR Advisors changing life trajectories, and social justice in the new world. CCR advisors can be teachers, coaches, bus drivers, college students and members of the community with a passion for helping students realize their college and career goals.

At our virtual Best Practices Expo, CFES schools will share the triumphs of their programs, and learn diverse improvement strategies from other CFES schools.

Celebrate Success

CFES honored Candice Sakuda, Director of Service-Learning at Chaminade University of Honolulu as this year’s Mario Peña Award recipient. Candice and Chaminade University have been long-time college partners and provided countless opportunities for CFES scholars to visit the campus, participate in college & career readiness activities, provide college students as mentors and foster the Essential Skills with a focus on service and student leadership. 

In the final conference session, CFES recognized 10 Irish and 21 U.S. schools with awards for their development and execution of exemplary plans based on the three core practices: Essential Skills, Mentoring, and Pathways to College and Career.

View Sessions






Ronald and Renee Rix


MC/Producer, Ron Rix

12:50: National Anthem, Rose Breen, CFES Fellow & Irish Step Dancing Presentation

1:00-1:15: Welcome and Remarks, Rick Dalton, CEO & President of CFES Brilliant Pathways

1:15-1:55: Keynote Address, John Quiñones, ABC News Correspondent and Author


Creating Impactful Virtual Campus Visits
COVID-19 has shifted the higher education world from in-person to virtual. Prospective college students are using virtual campus visits to make life-altering decisions about where they will attend college. Without the benefit of getting a feel for a campus in person, students need to be equipped with the right questions and knowledge to make postsecondary decisions.

  • Manny Tejeda (Moderator), Program Director & Alumni Network, CFES Brilliant Pathways (PA)
  • T.T Nguyen, Assistant Director of Admissions, University of Vermont (VT)
  • Carlos Vega, Senior Associate Director of Admissions, Saint Michael’s College (VT)
  • Jose E. Garcia, Assistant Director of Admissions, University of Richmond (VA)

Lessons Learned for a Virtual World
As students and educators step into virtual classrooms, the digital divide is widening and becoming more apparent. Reaching students with vastly different access to digital resources requires creativity and adaptability. This session will provide strategies and tips for developing an effective virtual learning environment for all students.

  • Jon Reidel (Moderator), Director of Programs and Online Content, CFES GEAR UP (NY)
  • Dan Mannix, Superintendent, Beekmantown Central School District (NY)
  • Dan French, Secretary of Education, State of Vermont Agency of Education (VT)
  • Cliona Hannon, Director, Trinity Access, Trinity College Dublin (IRL)

Paying for College
Money challenges are a growing concern for students, especially those from underserved communities. Figuring out how to pay for college can be overwhelming and too often it derails students from moving down the higher education pathway. In this roundtable, attendees will discover how to help students become financially literate and learn how to obtain scholarships and other dollars to pay for college.

  • Dennis Fahey (Moderator), Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways (MA)
  • Jackie Hallock, Vice President and Director of Marketing, Champlain National Bank (NY)
  • Yanely Espinal, Director of Educational Outreach, Next Gen Personal Finance (NY)
  • Gary Kuch, Director, Clark Foundation Scholarship Program (NY)

Government Leaders Discuss CCR in Our New World
Hear government leaders talk about how they view the New World affecting the college and career readiness. Each participant will talk about what they see as the key elements that lead to college and career readiness today.

  • Leroy Nesbitt (Moderator), Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways (DC)
  • Elise Stefanik, US Representative for New York’s 21st Congressional District (NY)
  • Peter Welch, US Representative for Vermont’s At-Large District (VT)

Scholar Session: Workshop on Virtual Interviewing
Virtual interviewing has become the new reality for job candidates, and best practices and norms for this are still evolving. Leaders from TransPerfect will share strategies for how Scholars can secure, conduct, and follow up on virtual interviews to be competitive in new pathways to careers/jobs.

  • Tara Smith (Moderator), Vice President for Programs and Project Director, CFES GEAR UP (NY)
  • Tabitha Ashura, Senior Manager, TransPerfect (NY)
  • Casey Dianni Director of Legal Production, TransPerfect (NY)
  • Denysse Sue Team Lead of T2, TransPerfect (HI)
  • Joyce Chen Team Lead of Legal GSS, TransPerfect (NY)

AT-LARGE PANEL: 2:50 – 3:30

Career Readiness in the New World
We live in a world of accelerating change and disruption. Technology, college costs, learning styles, and the entire landscape of postsecondary education and careers all require agility as we support students on their brilliant pathway in our new world. In this roundtable, leaders in the corporate and government sector will discuss what’s needed today for career readiness.

  • Gary Belske (Moderator), Board Member, CFES Brilliant Pathways (TX)
  • Carolyn Slaski, Americas Vice Chair of Talent, EY (NY)
  • Porter Braswell, Co-Founder & CEO, Jopwell (NY)
  • George Pataki, Former 3-Term New York State Governor (NY)


3:40-4:25: Scholar Panel on Personal Impacts of the Pandemic

Developing the Essential Skills™ is an integral part of college and career readiness. Panelists discuss how they are using the Essential Skills to navigate the ever-changing world of education and the workplace during a global pandemic.

  • Manny Tejeda (Moderator), Program Director & Alumni Network, CFES Brilliant Pathways (PA)
  • Justin Chukumba, Sales Director, Financial Services, Business Insider (NY)
  • Claire Carson, CFES GEAR UP Fellow, CFES Brilliant Pathways (NY)
  • L.J. Nunez, Sophomore at the University of Vermont (VT)

4:30: Day One Closing Remarks, Ron Rix, Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways


12:50-1:00: Entertainment: Wadleigh Secondary School Performance

1:00-1:15: Opening Remarks and Introduction of Keynoter, Bart Morrison, Board Chair, CFES Brilliant Pathways

1:15-1:55: Keynote Speaker: Paul Luna, President & CEO, Helios Education Foundation


Teaching the Essential Skills™ in a Virtual World
College, career, and life readiness requires that students and educators develop the Essential Skills™. This session will tackle strategies for weaving skills such as perseverance, goal setting, and agility into a virtual setting, an environment that requires new levels of creativity to ensure that students are college and career ready.

  • Tara Smith (Moderator), Vice President for Programs and Project Director, CFES GEAR UP (NY)
  • Debbie Cascone, Science/AVID Coordinator, Clearwater Fundamental Middle School (FL)
  • Matthew Roose, Health/AVID Instructor, Clearwater Fundamental Middle School (FL)
  • Brett McClelland, College & Career Readiness Fellow, Beekmantown Central School (NY)
  • Lindsey Gentry, Service Coordinator for Student Leadership, GEAR UP Promise Zone (KY)

College Students Supporting Families During COVID-19 and Beyond
COVID-19 has been challenging for many families who are educating their children in our new virtual world. The University of Vermont’s new Catamount Active Tutoring Corps (CAT Corps) is a volunteer-based online K-12 tutoring program serving Vermont families in need as a result of school disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. CAT Corps matches UVM student volunteers to tutoring and instructional support needs of families across Vermont. Learn how the CAT Corps model can be replicated for your families.

  • Jon Reidel (Moderator), Director of Programs and Online Content, CFES GEAR UP (NY)
  • Scott Thomas, Dean of the College of Education and Social Services (CESS), University of Vermont (VT)
  • Tiffanie Spencer, CESS Director for Diversity and Community Engagement, University of Vermont (VT)

Building Corporate Partnerships Without Borders
The United States and other countries face a skills gap: a severe shortage of workers that can ensure a robust economy. Collaborations with businesses can help fill the pipeline with future workers. Virtual school-business partnerships eliminate proximity as a partnership requirement. In this workshop, school and business leaders will discuss how to find a partner, the anatomy of a school-business partnership, steps to start, sustain, and strengthen partnerships, and examples of high-impact partnerships that have changed the trajectory of students.

  • Dennis Fahey (Moderator), Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways (MA)
  • Taleah E. Jennings, Partner, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP (NY)
  • Danny Fried, Associate Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, Colgate-Palmolive (NY)
  • Tabitha Ashura, Senior Manager, TransPerfect (NY)

STEM and the Essential Skills
Learn how you can establish STEM-infused college and career readiness opportunities for your Scholars in a virtual setting. This workshop will cover strategies for enlisting STEM-based partners, delivering STEM activities to Scholars, and infusing our three core practices in STEM-related programming in a time when hands-on activities may not always be an option.

  • Chris Mazzella (Moderator), Program Director & STEM Coordinator, CFES GEAR UP (NY)
  • Mary Margaret Small, North Country STEM Network, Clarkson University (NY)
  • Jim King, AIA Senior Partner, King + King Architects (NY)
  • Leif Sorgule, Technology & Engineering Teacher, Peru HS; Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, Clinton CC (NY)

Scholar Session: Alumni Share How They Readied for College
Scholars will hear directly from CFES alumni about how they overcame obstacles to become college and career ready. Alumni will not only share their pathway but engage with current Scholars in small groups to answer questions and provide advice.

  • Manny Tejeda (Moderator), Program Director & Alumni Network, CFES Brilliant Pathways (PA)
  • Tiffany Herman, CFES Alum & University of Vermont Graduate (NY)
  • Greg Herman, CFES Alum & University of Vermont Graduate (NY)
  • Monique Johnson, CFES Alum & Brooklyn Institute for Liberal Arts Graduate (NY)

AT-LARGE PANEL: 2:50-3:30

College Readiness in the New World
Join three college presidents in a panel discussion about what college readiness looks like today. The presidents will discuss disruption in higher education and what this means for our Scholars and our world.

  • Rick Dalton (Moderator), CEO & President, CFES Brilliant Pathways (NY)
  • John Simon, President, Lehigh University (PA)
  • Fayneese Miller, President, Hamline University (MN)
  • Ray DiPasquale, President, Clinton Community College (NY)


3:40-4:25: Best Practices Expo

Schools, colleges, and businesses will share best practices that are helping students become college and career ready in our new world.

4:30: Day Two Closing Remarks, Ron Rix, Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways


12:50-1:00: Entertainment: August Ahrens Elementary School Performance by Monica V.

1:00-1:15: Summary of Day Two and Introduction of Leilani Brown by Rick Dalton, President & CEO, CFES Brilliant Pathways

1:15-1:55: Keynote Speaker: Leilani Brown, Senior Vice President at K12 Inc.


Engaging Athletes as CCR Role Models in a New World
Participating in athletics has been linked to the development of time management, goal setting, and teamwork, all skills that make athletes great role models for younger students. While many athletic competitions are on pause, college athletes may have more time to participate in college and career readiness training and give back to their communities. This session will tackle how to recruit and engage these athletes.

  • Dennis Fahey (Moderator), Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways (MA)
  • Mike Lynch, Athletic Director, Babson College (MA)
  • Brock Tyrrell, Athletic Director and Football Coach, Van Horn High (TX)
  • Dr. Cathy Osmers Rahill, Associate Athletic Director, University of Vermont (VT)

CCR Advisors Changing Life Trajectories
Across the United States, too many counselors have neither the time nor the capacity to provide adequate college and career readiness support, especially for low-income students. With little support to guide them through the college preparation maze, underserved students often don’t know where to turn, and they make college-going decisions based on information that is inaccurate and misleading. To address this crisis, CFES has developed a program, where participants are trained as College and Career Readiness (CCR) Advisors. Those who participate in seven sessions receive certification from CFES and the University of Vermont. In this session, trained CCR advisors will share tips and strategies they used to put their training into practice.

  • Tara Smith (Moderator), Vice President for Programs and Project Director, CFES GEAR UP (NY)
  • Toby White, Director of Experiential Education Center for Applied Learning, SUNY Potsdam (NY)
  • Natan Arrazate, College & Career Readiness Advisor, Van Horn High School (TX)
  • Haley Shaffer, Teacher, Booker Middle School (FL)

Cultivating Active Antiracism in Education Spaces
This is a critical moment for those who want to create and cultivate antiracist spaces for our children. Administrators realize that we must move beyond tokenizing diversity and inclusion efforts to consciously build antiracist institutions. To do so, we must start by becoming comfortable with conversations about race. This session will address why it’s so difficult to talk about race, how we can teach antiracism in the classroom, and what can be done to address racist legacies built into educational practices in the US moving forward.

  • Ron Rix (Moderator), Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways (NY)
  • Kyleema Norman, Principal, Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts (NY)
  • Chris Bishop, Freshman Academy Leader, Jeremiah E. Burke High School (MA)
  • Xavier DeFreitas, Assistant Director of Residence Life, The Ohio State University (OH)

Developing STEM Identity through Mentoring
Low-income students are 10 times less likely to attain a STEM degree than their upper income peers. Reasons for this include limited exposure to STEM pathways and few role models in their community. Mentors with STEM backgrounds can address this challenge. This session will discuss ways to develop STEM-based mentoring programs.

  • Chris Mazzella (Moderator), Program Director and GEAR UP STEM Coordinator, CFES Brilliant Pathways (NY)
  • George White, Professor Emeritus, Lehigh University (PA)
  • Lacrecia Terrance, National Faculty PBL Works, CEO, EduProject (LA)
  • Lee Rizzo, VP Government Affairs, SAIC (VA)

Scholar Session: How to Move Down the CCR Pathway in the New World
This session will provide Scholars with useful tools to leverage their Essential Skills and move down the college and career pathway while also juggling academics in the midst of a global pandemic and social upheaval.

  • Manny Tejeda (Moderator), Program Director & Alumni Network, CFES Brilliant Pathways (PA)
  • Lisa Nelson, Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways (NY)
  • Brett McClelland, College & Career Readiness Fellow, Beekmantown Central School (NY)
  • Mallory Carpenter, College & Career Readiness Fellow, Beekmantown Central School (NY)

AT-LARGE PANEL: 2:50-3:30

Social Justice in the New World
Social justice has always been a critical issue, but it has more recently been publicly acknowledged as an essential dimension of existing in the world. This panel will take an intersectional approach to discussing key issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, and other inequities exposed by a global pandemic. Speakers will propose direction for imagining new worlds and address the role of young people in executing change.

  • Leroy Nesbitt (Moderator), Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways (DC)
  • Kyleema Norman, Principal, Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts (NY)
  • Don Outing, Vice President for Equity and Community, Lehigh University (PA)
  • Dean Garfield, Vice President of Public Policy, Netflix (AMS)
  • Scott Pioli, NFL Analyst, CBS Sports (GA)


3:40-4:25: Peña Award & School of Distinction Recognition

Named in honor and memory of former CFES Board Member, Mario Peña, CFES presents the award annually to an exceptional educator who helps develop and expand collaborations that increase college access and success for underserved youth.

CFES Brilliant Pathways has worked with Trinity College Dublin for a number of years and we are pleased to recognize their exemplary practices this year by honoring them with the Innovation and Community Awards to 10 of their schools.

The CFES School of Distinction award recognizes schools that have exemplary programs incorporating the three CFES core practices: Mentoring, Essential Skills, and College & Career Pathways. These schools provide extensive exposure to the three practices for CFES Scholars and also create a culture that promotes college and career readiness for all students.

4:30: Conference Closing Remarks, Ron Rix, Program Director, CFES Brilliant Pathways