Community Spotlight: Grace Institute


Grace Institute is a non-profit organization that has provide job readiness training to women for more than one hundred years. Originally a school run by nuns, the agency has since transitioned into a workforce development program geared towards the current job market. The program is tuition free but requires a 20 week commitment, Monday through Friday from 9:00am to 4:00pm.

Participants receive training in 4 core components and spend the remaining time interacting with industry professionals who volunteer their time. The women in this program are from all walks of life – some had full times for 30 years and were suddenly laid off with no plans for the future. Some of the participants are underemployed and want to find a career, rather than a job.

It’s important to note that Grace Institute focuses on job and career fit over placement. As such, they teach participants self-evaluation and reflection. Volunteers from partner corporations come in to speak to them, both to give them an idea of where their skills can take them, but also to open up new thoughts on career paths. In institute also places strong emphasis on adult learning strategy, structuring the environment and classrooms to incorporate collaborative learning, open dialogue and critical thinking.

Agency Overview

Grace Institute was founded by W.R. Grace, an Irish immigrant, in 1897. When he began running his business, he employed many immigrants. The wives, sisters and daughters of these employees generally lacked the skills to compete in the job market. The institute was created to provide workplace skills for these women. Originally run by nuns, the organization has always been geared towards practical skills – in the early 1900s, this was sewing, cooking and other domestic tasks. As the marketplace changed, so did the course offerings.

Grace institute is focused first and foremost on providing immediately applicable job skills to women in need. The courses cover both hard and soft skills with the intention of helping women find long term and fulfilling careers.

Formerly a school, the agency has made a conscious shift towards being recognized as a workforce development program. As part of this shift, the attendees are known as participants instead of students. The program itself is run as a business casual corporate environment – from the clothing, to the settings to the fact that the women clock in every morning, all in preparation for working in a professional setting. One of the participants described it as a “completely holistic approach”.

Changing with the Times

Up until this year, the 136 participants were split across 4 sections, all receiving the following 4 classes; Business Writing and Communication, Office Technology, Keyboarding, and Professional Development.  The necessity and set up of each course is continually evaluated to determine whether the skills are still relevant in the current job market. At the moment, Grace Institute is implementing Salesforce to track job placement and retention among alumni. They intend to use that data to modify current courses or develop new ones. This year, the agency began a pilot program in one of the 4 sections to prepare selected participants for the role of Patient Services Representative (PSR) in the Healthcare field. By evaluating the job market, the Directors determined that there was potential for better job placement by focusing training to meet the needs of this field. To join the PSR section, current participants must sit through an application and interview process, much like when they were first admitted to the program.

The institute is tuition free, save for a $75.00 registration fee and a $75.00 books/technology and materials fee. There is a strict admissions process to ensure that the women that are accepted will be committed to successfully completing the program. Grace Institute is a non-profit that does not receive any government funding. To remain tuition free, the Grace family accumulated a sizable endowment which is now approximately $30 million dollars. Until 2012, the organization was pulling 100% of its operating costs from this. Since then, they have hired Jessica James, Director of Development, to cultivate relationships with business and procure grants from organizations such as The Robinhood Foundation, The Pinkerton Foundation and The Blackstone Group. Additional funding and support comes from corporate partners. These businesses provide volunteers who come in to teach business skills or discuss their path to success. They’ve even had members from Google come in for a day long team building exercise that taught IT skills to the participants. Recently, the agency received a $100,000.00 donation from American Security that financed a new computer lab, including approximately 100 computers. The hope in building these relationships is to raise donations, provide industry insight to participants and allow networking opportunities that may lead to employment opportunities. Last year, Macy’s place 25% of their graduates in Merchandising roles.

Instructional Overview

The tour was led by the Director of Development, Jessica and two participants on the path to graduation. These women, Tolou and Rose, were passionate about the program and effusive in sharing the impact it had has had on their lives. There were also two representatives from another organization,, who were touring Grace Institute in hopes of establishing a partnership.

Walking into the classrooms, it’s easy to see that these are all mature, professional and dedicated women. Even without an instructor, they are all working on something, no one is on their phones and they were immediately engaged when we walked into the room. Rose and Tolou were eager to talk about the projects they’ve been working on and there were examples of collaborative learning projects on every wall.

The women is this program generally range from 18 to 65 in age. Previously, one of the 4 sections was comprised of all young adults, who make up about 30% of attendees. With the addition of the PSR section, that group has been integrated into the other sections, increasing the diversity of age across the remaining groups. Regardless of section, all participants take the same core classes together. Age, race, language and past work experience vary greatly and has very little bearing on placement. There are lawyers, teachers, stay at home moms, and accountants. Some of the participants are fresh out of high school. Some, like Rose, have been employed for 26 years but were unhappy, and some, like Tolou, had been out of the job market for over 10 years and found that her skills were sorely outdated.

While we stopped into a few different classrooms, only one of them was in session and we were unable to speak to the instructors. We observed the first day of the PSR course, which was an overview of what the field and the position were. Once completed, PSR-track participants should be fully equipped to provide customer care in settings such as hospitals, urgent cares centers, and medical offices. Grace Institute is partnered with Weil-Cornell, LIU, and New York Presbyterian and has recently partnered with CityMD for job placement.

Based on the conversations prior to the classroom tours, I was surprised to see the instructor using a PowerPoint presentation to deliver initial information. The first slide we were shown was a diagram of all the tasks associated with someone in a PSR role. She briefly went over the content while participants took notes, but there wasn’t any open dialogue or question/response that would get participants actively involved.  Although she related the information to herself by saying, “At my core, I am a PSR and I have PSR duties”, she didn’t elaborate further or provide any personal details about the job she does. However, we only observed the lesson for a few minutes, so I cannot fully evaluate the facilitation method.

The course that I found interesting, and that the participants said they found most valuable, was the Professional Development course. Tolou and Rose spoke passionately about how it affected their way of perceiving themselves, others and the world around them. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to observe it as I think it would provide a better representation of the agency’s prescribed method of teaching adult learners. Below, I briefly detail some of the more interesting aspects of the 2 of the courses and how they are taught.

  • Keyboarding – This class is taken in a group setting but it is differentiated per learner. A typing test is given at the beginning of the program to determine the participant’s average typing speed (WPM). A goal is then set to add 15 WPM to that initial number, i.e if you began at 40 WPM, by the end of the program, you should be at 65 WPM. Participants use a software that gauges where they are and then helps them to reach their goal. This allows students to go at their own pace, eliminating frustration and undue competition.
  • Professional Development – This class provides many soft skills needed in the workplace but rarely discussed. They cover etiquette, verbal and non-verbal communication, self-confidence, and cultivating your business persona. To prepare for job searching at the end of the program, participants engaged in a mock interview with 45 volunteers from different companies, who provided them with valuable feedback.

In terms of participant evaluations, every class provides tests, and at least 2 progress reports. Technology courses also use to assess progress. There are two full time social workers on staff to provide counseling to participants who are struggling either in the program or in their personal life. If it is determined that she won’t be able to complete the program, she is counseled out. The average program completion rate is 75%, with last year exceeding that at 87%. Their processes seem to work – 80% of their graduates are place within 1 year.

Closing Thoughts

This visit left me extremely impressed with Grace Institute and what they have accomplished. They have been in operation for over 100 years and they have evolved to continue their mission in an ever changing world. It isn’t easy to balance providing a much needed service to communities and operate as a business, but they do it well. I think this starts with their mission as a workforce development program and their admissions process. From the very beginning, participants are given an orientation. If they apply, they can expect to be interviewed, take aptitude exams, pass the TABE test and be evaluated for risk factors to determine if this is the best time and/or fit for them. If an applicant is not admitted, they are referred to other agencies that provide similar services. While they can’t accept everyone, they provide motivation and resources to anyone who comes to their doors.

The other take away for me was the level of support provided by the staff and fellow participants. I have been very interested in building positive and open learning environments and that feeling is prevalent at Grace Institute. There’s a floor to ceiling whiteboard in the halls where participants write motivating messages to each other. Every Friday they have something called Friday Forum where they watch TedTalks, discuss their growth and ask questions. Every Tuesday and Thursday, they have something called ‘Food For Thought’, wherein a corporate volunteer visits to give insight into his/her field. There are open computer labs, free periods to catch up on work, and a community center to catch up with fellow participants. The women here are treated like adults in a working environment and, regardless of their background, their experiences and opinions hold value and are respected by everyone in the organization. So many of the things I witnessed have already gone in my toolbox and the visit has introduced me to a completely new way to approach workforce development.

A Brief Intro to Adult Learning Theory

There’s a lot of info about learning theory in the early years, but what about for adults?

That’s the first question every adult educator should start with. Unlike K-12 education, there aren’t strict governing bodies that inform every decision made in adult education. Instead, our community depends on years of independent and industry research as the basis for our practice. This means that there isn’t just one, or two, or even three ways in which we believe adults learn. In fact, on a whole, facilitators of adult education haven’t entirely agreed on what that term actually means. They have agreed, however, that a few key concepts are consistent when teaching adult learners.

Adult learners are looking for:

Can you break that down for me?

Of course! We’ll go piece by piece so that you can get an idea of how these seemingly simple components come together to form the complex field of adult education. Before we continue, remember that no one component is inherently more important than the other and there a billion other factors that determine why a student showed up to your class. Also, keep in mind that each learning situation is based on the circumstances and abilities of the instructor, the learners and the environment in which you teach.

Relevance of Content

Do you remember sitting in pre-calculus and desperately wondering why you were learning it? What’s the likelihood using advanced math in your everyday life? It didn’t really matter because someone decided you needed to learn it and so you did. Or I assume you tried to. If you’re like me, you didn’t retain anything after algebra because it held no relevance to you.

There are so many reasons someone shows up to your classroom; job mandated training, skill building for employment, individual pursuit of knowledge. Regardless of what got them there, your students are looking to learn something that means something. It’s important for you, as an educator, to identify that reason in order to ensure the success of your students.

Immediately Applicable Skills

Skills don’t always have to be manual, but for most adult learners, they do need to be immediately applicable. That means that what you teach today should be translatable to what your student does tomorrow.

Regardless of your audience, your content should aim to teach practical skills or knowledge in a way that is easy to relate to. Learners should know why they are being taught the content and how they can expect it to help them in their personal or professional lives.

Involvement in the Process

The most prevalent classroom structure in K-12 is teacher as leader. This means that the teacher, or person at the front of the room, makes all decisions about what and how content is learned. This can lead to passive learning, in which your audience only learns what you teach them with no consideration for their own interests, strengths or preferences.

Involvement level can vary based on any number of factors;  subject matter, government guidelines, time constraints, program structure and audience composition are just a few. Although it may initially sound challenging, there are simple ways to get everyone involved and invested in what is being taught. Having your learners share what they want to learn during the course or what projects they would like to work on, and then integrating that feedback into your lesson are just to examples of how this could work.

Acknowledgement and Inclusion of Prior Experience

One major difference between K-12 and adult education is that children are assumed to have no prior experience to build upon. This is not the case with adults, as discussed by Paulo Friere and to some extent, John Dewey.

The model of ‘educational banking’ does not translate well to higher education because adults are not empty vessels. They carry with them many years a experiences that shape the way they view the world and approach every situation. In order to keep them engaged, it’s important for educators to acknowledge this fact and look for ways to incorporate those experiences into the lesson. Asking learners to apply what they are currently learning to past experiences is an easy way to include student experiences in the classroom and help them understand the value of the content being taught.

Flexibility in the Way Content is Taught

We’re all familiar with the saying ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. That same idea applies to education. Although your learners need to learn the same content, it is unlikely that everyone will learn the same way at the same speed. There are several theories that address this including Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, McClusky’s Theory of Margin and work done by Malcolm Knowles.

Although we have the benefit of technology, finding a video on Youtube or a link through Google does not guarantee learning. When we talk about the way content is taught, consider whether you are incorporating active learning techniques or content that integrates different learning styles.

This is part of a 3-part series focusing on applying adult learning theory in the workplace. To see the other articles, view Self Directed Learning as a Training Solution   and Using Inter-team Collaborations to Promote Critical Thinking Skills

Women, Leadership and Workforce Education

Understanding the Origins of Gender Inequality to Drive Progress

Most societies evolved with a built-in inequality between men and women. Many religious texts require women to defer to their husband, something that has been carried into the workplace. Women and men are held to different standards, and are judged by different measures of success.

This disparity between the genders can make workforce education extremely complex. Consider not only religious, but also societal assumptions that unconsciously dictate the role of women in the workplace. Movies, music and tv shows all acknowledge the struggle of women to obtain respect in a male dominated workplace, but few have done so with the intention of affecting change. Instead, it’s a joke or personal story, but rarely is it a call to action.

The separation between men and women can be felt more acutely in Arab nations, where equal rights for women expands far beyond the labor force.

In this video, Dr Behjat Al Yousuf, Associate Director of Dubai Women’s College speaks about their efforts to provide educational opportunities for women, within the constraints of their culture.

Gender Equality – Perception Changes Everything

Watch this short TEDTalk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook as she talks about unconscious gender bias in the workplace and how our own perceptions keep us and others from succeeding.


What is ‘the gender pay gap’?

This perception, along with prevailing cultural and societal norms have contributed to what is known as ‘the gender pay gap’. Countless independent and government sponsored studies have yielded the same results – across all industries women are paid significantly less for doing the same job as their male counterparts with the same or similar qualifications.

I’m not telling women to be like men. I’m telling us to evaluate what men and women do in the workforce and at home without the gender bias.– Sheryl Sandberg

In addition to the disparity in pay, there is a perception that some professions are more suited for men instead of women, regardless of previous education. The idea that women aren’t capable of achieving success in a field has lead to overwhelmingly male-centric industries, most notably in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM).

Click here to read more about how stereotypes about the ability to succeed based solely on gender can discourage girls before they even have a chance to try.

Here’s How Workforce Education Can Level the Playing Field

Workforce Education Centers have a unique opportunity. Unlike higher education institutions, they have the unique ability to set hiring requirements for employers. Brooklyn Workforce Initiative, located in Brooklyn, NY, places all graduates at companies that have a minimum starting salary of $12 – $13, guaranteeing that all graduates are receiving equal pay for the same skill set.

In addition, Workforce Education Centers generally teach practical skills with the goal of meeting certification requirements in high demand fields. Teaching the right combination of practical and professional skills – including having leaders of all genders involved in presentations or curriculum creation – can better prepare women for a competitive workplace.

Finally, Workforce Education Centers generally work very closely with employers and can gain insight on what it takes to be successful within an organization. They also have the chance to create mentoring relationships within an organization to support women as they transition into the company.

We Need Diverse Leaders – Everyone Can Have an Impact

Leaders come in all forms. Whether it be a man or a women, change can originate from those who are are truly invested in progressive actions and legislation that promote equity for all genders, ages and races.
These figures from a report by the Pew Research Center shows the trend of women in government positions over the last 40+ years. As you can see, the number of female representatives in Congress has steadily risen from 1965 onwards. 

Having more women in government brings something that is unique to all marginalized populations – perception. This is not to say that men cannot be supporters of women’s rights and equality, but rather that women bring with them experiences shaped by laws, stipulations and biased that influence their ability to succeed. Having a disproportionate number of female representatives in government means that laws for women are being passed without enough representation to really dive into the repercussions they’ll have on the populations they look to serve.

Interested in learning more? Visit the full research project at

Legislation, Workforce Education and Transitioning Veterans


Workforce Education legislation, including the recent passing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) has had a focus on creating educational opportunities for underserved and marginalized populations. One such group is U.S. veterans; in addition to WIOA, they receive benefits from legislation geared towards providing education and training opportunities for those who served on active duty from 1944, onwards. The resulting programs are a mixture of government, non-profit and private run initiatives that vary greatly in content and quality. Each of these entities may serve different demographics or deliver services under a specific section of the law, but generally have the same end goal. They exist to provide transitional educational opportunities that allow veterans to complete higher education or vocational training, keeping in mind their unique and challenging experiences.


The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (later known as the GI Bill), was originally created to provide benefits to veterans returning from World War II. The bill has been expanded during subsequent wars, including the Vietnam War. In 2008, prompted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, this bill was revised and amended to extend those benefits to any person who served on active duty for 90 or more days on or after September 10, 2001. In addition to compensation, pensions, and life insurance, these benefits included a robust plan for aiding education and vocational rehabilitation and transition services for members that fall into this category. The bill outlines the types of programs and institutions that are qualified to provide services under the new laws and compliance is monitored and enforced by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

According to a report published by the Department of Veteran Affairs, during 2015, there were 1,016,664 beneficiaries who received education benefits sponsored under the current GI Bill and all its iterations. This includes all veterans who served in active duty from 1944 to present day. Taking a look at Table 1, you’ll see a breakdown of the educational beneficiaries (veterans and their survivors and/or dependents), the programs under which they are eligible and the level of education they are undertaking. There are six educational and training programs set up under the GI Bill:

  • POST 9/11: Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Program (Post-9/11 GI Bill)
  • MGIB-AD: All-Volunteer Force Educational Assistance Program (Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty)
  • MGIB-SR: Educational Assistance for Members of the Selected Reserve (Montgomery GI Bill – Selected Reserve)
  • REAP: Reserve Educational Assistance Program
  • DEA: Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance
  • VEAP: Post-Vietnam Era Veterans Educational Assistance Program

In 2015 there were approximately 452,000 newly enrolled participants in an educational program under this legislation. Despite the total number of beneficiaries, over one million, the total number of educational beneficiaries decreased by 7% between fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The report does not indicate the cause of this decrease, nor whether this is the intended result of the legislation. This is to say, there is no information on the impact of the US withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and whether we should expect to see a consistent decline or increase in the number of beneficiaries each year. The report indicates a surge in beneficiaries between 2012 and 2013 and a steady decrease beginning in 2013. The question, then, is whether the decrease in participants can be attributed to less active duty service-members being eligible for the program or perhaps a correlation between marketing and outreach with the decline of enrollments. There has also not been any update to the GI Bill to account for the fact that we are no longer considered ‘at war’. This means that all service-members currently serving 90 or more days will be eligible for these benefits.

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Motivators and Barriers to Educational Success

According to the 2009 study by Ackerman, DiRamio and Garza Mitchell, titled Transitions: Combat Veterans as College Student, feedback from participants indicated that “along with patriotism, the promise of educational benefits was a primary motivator. Eight participants noted the need for financial support to attend college (pg 6)”. This implies that those on active duty, those thinking about enlisting and those that have left the military understand the value in both the GI Bill and higher education/vocational training. The financial assistance is a gateway to these opportunities that were previously out of reach due to any number of reasons, including socioeconomic standing.

However, based on the resources provided on the VA’s website, mental health services are available but not mandated in order for veterans to acclimate to life and work outside of the military. There is also no literature about the counseling process when joining the military. This begs the question whether candidates understand the potential struggles veterans will face once returning to civilian life. According to a 2012 study by Ellison et al. “war related trauma and consequent impairments can hinder educational attainment among veterans with disabilities including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The study conducted by Ackerman et al. (2009) shares the view of one participant in particular who “noted that the killing and survival skills learned in the military were not applicable in classroom settings, implying that a relearning of leadership skills was also necessary (pg 7)”. Limited information is available about programs that address these issues and works with veterans, specifically, to map their skills to applicable ones in the workforce.

Additionally, the same study found that “the barriers to education centered on four codes, two of which were especially relevant to young adults: educational planning and reintegration challenges”. This qualitative study found that the lack of preparation and educational experience of participants was a contributing factor in failure to complete higher education programs. Overall program administration is lacking, leading to difficulties in gaining access to available resources. This is in line with the study done by Ellison et al. (2012), which states:

“The Veterans Administration, which handles educational and medical benefits, is not an easy bureaucracy to understand, although some negotiated it well. We learned, too, that not all campuses have functioning programs in place to assist veterans who have become students. Then there were the challenges of fitting in, of just being a student (pg 9)”

This is a frequent piece of feedback that has been heard both from veterans as well as news outlets and oversight committees. In their 2016 article titled Career Transitions of Student Veterans Ghosh and Fouad suggest that “Although student veterans’ enrollment has increased, there is limited information about how the transition from military service to college life influences the career choices of student veterans (pg 99)”. They also found that “According to ACE (2011), military experiences may translate into academic credit at most universities. However, if student veterans are not aware of this and other resources and benefits, they may lack a sense of confidence in making the transition to college (pg 106)”. It is clear from both the literature review and the information available on the VA’s website that there is a disconnect between the services being provided and the audience they are meant to serve.

Utilizing Current Legislation to Create Tailored Programs and Environments

In that vein, it seems apparent that the responsibility to create successful programs generally resides with the educational institution, which would explain the variation in quality of services received. Research conducted by Lokken, Pfeffer, McAuley, & Strong in 2009 shows that institutions like St Cloud State University in Minnesota is making conscious efforts to make their campus better suit the needs of the target demographic, saying, “veteran-friendly refers to marked efforts made by individual campuses to identify and remove barriers to the educational goals of veterans, to create smooth transitions from military life to college life (pg 45)”. In July of 2006, the MDVA–Higher Education Veterans Programs split the state into 6 regions and assigned a coordinator responsible for compliance and implementation. They also assigned a Program Director to oversee the program and coordinate efforts. This move, along with increased funding for military programs saw a total of forty-one campuses running veterans resource centers. The program has received positive reviews and increased the number of veterans receiving necessary services related to education and career. Although this model will not fit all states – especially considering population density in areas like Texas, NY and LA – it does put forth an alternative way of managing resources to make services more accessible. It also demonstrates the importance of consistency, coordination, and oversight in maintaining value in government funded program.



There is limited literature regarding the transition of veterans into the higher education and vocational institutions, how they are programs and people are supported once they begin a program or long term results of initiatives. However, the topic warrants further investigation. Research into the impact of holistic career transitioning services in higher education and vocational training can be a valuable tool for program planners looking for ways to empower veterans in the classroom and the workplace. Education institutions and local government bodies would benefit greatly from a deeper understanding of the GI Bill, it’s intended implementation and the way it is presently influencing the structure of program offerings. Finally, research into and program planning focused on bridging the gap between skills acquired and new career paths would likely be valuable to participants, especially those who enlisted at a fairly young age.



Ackerman, R., DiRamio, D., & Garza Mitchell, R.L. (2009). Transitions: Combat Veterans as College Students. New Directions for Student Services (Wiley InterScience). 24, 5-14. doi: 10.1002/ss.311

Bound, J., & Turner, S. (2002). Going to War and Going to College: Did World War II and the G.I. Bill Increase Educational Attainment for Returning Veterans?. Journal of Labor Economics, 20, 784-815. doi: 0734-306X/2002/2004-0003$10.00

Bokhour, B.G., Drebing, C., Ellison, M.L., Smelson, D., Corrigan, P.W., Najavits, L.M., Torres Stone, R.A., Vessella, J.M. (2012). Supporting the Education Goals of Post-9/11 Veterans with Self-Reported PTSD Symptoms: A Needs Assessment. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35, 209–217. doi: 10.2975/35.3.2012.209.217

Ghosh, A.& Fouad, N.A. (2016). Career Transitions of Student Veterans. Journal of Career Assessment, 24, 99-111. doi: 10.1177/1069072714568752

Lokken, J.M, Pfeffer, D.S, McAuley, J., & Strong, C. (2009). A Statewide Approach to Creating Veteran-Friendly Campuses. New Directions for Student Services (Wiley InterScience). 126, 45-54. doi: 10.1002/ss.315

Loughran, J. (2014). Professionally Developing as a Teacher Educator. The International Journal of Teacher Education, 26, 271-283. doi: 10.1177/0022487114533386

FY 2015 Annual Benefits Report – Education Section

US Department of Veterans Affairs

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