Exposing students to professional opportunities is not a new concept at Hesston High School. In fact, high school counselor Courtney Hiebert said such experiences are tailored to each grade level — with multiple opportunities to learn about potential careers, and the necessary post-secondary education needed, offered to freshmen through seniors.

However, it was one recent trip to AGCO the Hesston Robotics class took in the fall — one students called the best experience they'd had — offering hands-on learning in a related professional field that informed the latest opportunity being organized by the high school.

"We just started to brainstorm how we could continue off that and really better connect our businesses in this area, not just Hesston alone, to our students and really expose them to further careers and different opportunities within that," Hiebert said. "We've got a lot of great industry opportunities in our very own community and I don't think our kids totally realize that — or maybe they think of AGCO and think agriculture; they don't really think about all the jobs that are possibilities within that."

Looking to open students' minds to all those potential career paths, Hesston High School will be hosting its first career fair from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Jan. 24 in the high school gym, with freshman through seniors participating. The Hesston culinary arts class will also be offering breakfast items while sponsors AGCO and NetWork Kansas will be providing lunch at the career fair.

Discussions about a career fair began with the Hesston Chamber of Commerce and executive director Megan Smith in November, according to Hiebert, as the school started seeking community partners to connect students with as many potential business opportunities as possible.

On top of bringing in local businesses, Hiebert said she has been contacting area schools, such as Hesston College, Hutchinson Community College and Wichita State University, to better illuminate those potential career paths and the certification or training that may go along with that. Bringing in the colleges was an idea that stemmed from one of the current opportunities offered to Hesston juniors to visit various college settings in one day.

This career fair will be open to all Hesston High School students, though, with each grade level getting 45 to 50 minutes to walk around the gym and visit with the different schools and businesses participating. Hiebert noted a worksheet will be given to students to help them really engage in the experience and both students and businesses are being prepared going into the day of the event.

"We're just asking them to share information about what their business does, what education that student might need to work at that organization ... and then help guide them on their next steps after high school and answer questions in that regard, too," Smith said. "It's just a way for them to advocate the different career opportunities that they have available locally so students know, 'I can go into this discipline and come back to the community I grew up in and work and have a career here.' It also has an opportunity for businesses, if they have job openings available that high schoolers can apply for, to promote those as well."

Currently, Smith noted 22 businesses have signed up to participate in the Hesston High School career fair, with 19 of those being Hesston Chamber members.

Hiebert noted she has taken students to career fairs at other schools and participated in events like Manufacturer's Day where busloads of students are invited to Newton and McPherson to learn more about that industry and specific businesses. However, hosting its own career fair comes with its own set of logistic benefits."

"That's awesome. We want to do that; we want to take kids out to sites and actually see things in action where they're at," Hiebert said. "It's just not always feasible for us with transportation and actually removing them from the school day. So, this provides the opportunity for all grade levels to be able to experience and see and talk to people, while at the same time only missing about 45 to 50 minutes of their normal school day."

Both Hiebert and Smith believe one of the biggest benefits of the career fair is exposure and awareness — making students (and the community at-large) aware of just how many career opportunities exist even within one individual businesses.

"I think it gives students a broader perspective within their disciplines on what job opportunities might be available to them," Smith said. "I also think that sometimes not just students, but the broader community, doesn't always take time to think about the broad spectrum of careers that are covered just within a small town and so this really can help open students' eyes, but also just bring awareness to the community of all of the different disciplines that we have within the small town of Hesston."

Preparing for the career fair, both Hiebert and Smith are excited not only for what that means this year, but what that might mean for future students as well.

Connections are being forged between local businesses and the school and organizers are looking to keep building upon that moving forward.

"We're looking at a gym full of tables with people walking around speaking to them, so I'm excited," Hiebert said. "I'm excited to also see what we feel like afterwards, how we can improve for the next year because I think this is something that could be really good for our kids."