Students, teachers and business leaders focus on “Shaping Tomorrow’s Workforce Today” at event.

When a group of 13 students from the Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx arrived at the University of Vermont in 2001, they became instant pioneers in helping to diversify the Burlington institution. In the process, they helped launch “the most extraordinary school-college partnership ever,” said Rick Dalton, president and chief executive of CFES Brilliant Pathways, a nonprofit organization that orchestrated the relationship and helps students build the skills they need to thrive in school, college and beyond.

Since that first group, more than 400 students have enrolled at UVM from the Bronx through the partnership. And on Friday, the architects of that program – former Columbus Principal Gerald Garfin, former UVM admissions dean Don Honeman, and Thomas Gustafson, a UVM vice president – were recognized with the Mario Peña Award, an annual honor given by CFES to educators who play critical roles in helping underserved youth gain access to higher education.

The trio was recognized in front of 325 students, teachers, industry leaders and others who attended the group’s annual conference, held Friday and Saturday in Burlington, VT. While recounting the challenges of introducing first-generation college students from the Bronx to Burlington, Honeman credited the students’ “act of courage” in moving to a place so wholly different from anything they had ever experienced.

The partnership with Columbus, which opened a world of possibilities to students who often find opportunity in short supply, is emblematic of the work done by CFES Brilliant Pathways, which helps students in underserved rural and urban areas both in the U.S. and Ireland. The group partners with schools, teachers and businesses to give students the tools they need to identify their passions and build a pathway to pursuing careers in those fields.

At the core of the lessons imparted by CFES are the Essential Skills – a set of six attributes including goal setting, teamwork, leadership, agility, networking and perseverance that are taught to each of the 25,000 K-12 students who participate in the organization’s programs every year.

It’s perseverance, above all, that helped keynote speaker Rene Godefroy thrive after arriving to the U.S. from Haiti in 1983.

“No condition is permanent,” he told an enrapt audience as he opened the conference on Friday afternoon. Holding the very suitcase with which he arrived on these shores with just two shirts and a pair of pants, he exhorted the students in the room to train their minds to and tune out the nay-sayers in their lives.

“People are trying to write the script of your life for you,” said Godefroy, an author and motivational speaker. “Don’t let their reality become your reality.”

The two-day conference featured an array of workshops and seminars aimed at helping students plot their course to college and career, and educators and businesses understand how to build partnerships that ultimately yield students with the workforce skills needed to thrive.

In a session addressing those workforce skills on Saturday, a panel comprised of Carolyn Slaski, Americas vice chair of talent for consulting firm EY; Karen Watts, an executive school superintendent in Brooklyn, NY; and Vermont Lieutenant Gov. David Zuckerman discussed that while today’s students must build mastery in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), neither can schools abandon the social sciences, which build skills no robot can emulate.

“I couldn’t be more bullish about the workforce,” Slaski said. “I think people are not going to be doing the mundane work – I think they’re going to be doing the cool work.”