Owning Their Future: The Joy of DECA, Part I

Editor’s Note: In our May 29 issue, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger about DECA. The organization held its big international conference in late April. This week, Mr. Nordlinger expands his piece in his Impromptus.

Sixteen thousand high-school students have converged here in Anaheim, Calif. — but they’re not going to Disneyland. Well, some of them are. But mainly they’re here to participate in a giant career-development conference. The theme of this conference is “Own Your Future.” The participants, the high-schoolers, are walking around in blue blazers, which have a patch that says “DECA.”

‐What does “DECA” stand for? “It stands for truth, justice, and the American way,” says John Fistolera, an official with DECA. It’s a good quip. “We’re about free enterprise,” says Fistolera, “and free enterprise is the American way.”

For decades, DECA has been known as “DECA,” plain and simple. (The word is pronounced “Decka” — like the record label, Decca.) But, once upon a time, the letters stood for “Distributive Education Clubs of America.”

The term “distributive education” is now antique — even more antique than “voc-ed” (for “vocational education”). The preferred term now is “career education,” or “career and technical education.” I myself had never heard the term “distributive education” until a few years ago, when I was interviewing Harold Hamm.

‐He is the 13th and last child of cotton sharecroppers in Oklahoma — and the leading oilman in the United States. When he was in high school, in the early 1960s, he took part in a D.E. program. It meant that you got school credit for working. And the classes you took probably related to the work you were doing. Young Hamm was working at a truck stop. And he wrote a paper on oil exploration.

His D.E. teacher was a man named Jewell Ridge. The teacher meant a lot to Hamm, and to many other students, most of them poor. When Ridge died, Hamm delivered a eulogy at his funeral. Recounting all this to me, Hamm got tears in his eyes.

For the piece I wrote about Harold Hamm, go here. (Incidentally, he has devoted a lot of the money he has earned to providing educational opportunity to the poor.)

‐DECA was founded in 1946, when going to college was not de rigueur. Young people needed skills for the work world. They still do, of course. But college is a box that increasingly must be checked. Most DECA students are college-bound. Nonetheless, the organization still serves kids who aren’t.

Here in Anaheim, I meet a young man who is going straight to the Air Force. Another one is joining the family business, to learn the ropes.

‐DECA has 200,000 members in 3,500 high schools. The members, I should make clear, are students. And they pay dues, as members of organizations often do. The dues are $8 a year. If a student can’t afford this sum, he can work for it, for example in a DECA-run school store.

There is also a college division, though smaller: 15,000 members in 275 colleges and universities.

‐DECA works something like this: In the classroom, students are taught the fundamentals of business. The concentrations are marketing, finance, hospitality, and management. Buttressing and amplifying the classroom experience is contact with real-live businessmen — practitioners. DECA is a kind of partnership between schools and the business world.

There is a phrase in the DECA literature that I especially like: DECA aids in “preparing well-adjusted, employable citizens.”

‐In addition to everything else DECA offers — studies, internships, etc. — there is competition. The thrill of competition. DECA stages competitions on the local, regional, state, and national levels. These competitions test a variety of business skills. And the conference here in Anaheim is the big enchilada, the Super Bowl, the national finals.

‐Did I say “national”? They want you to say “international.” Actually, I should have said “Olympics,” rather than “Super Bowl.” There are students here from all 50 states plus a handful of countries: Spain, South Korea, China, and Canada. The Canadians are very competitive when it comes to DECA.

Canadians? Mild-mannered, polite, self-effacing Canadians? Yes. Think hockey.

‐For many students, wherever they’re from, DECA provides an opportunity to scratch a competitive itch. A lot of DECA kids are devotees of Shark Tank, a reality-TV show. On this show, entrepreneurs, or would-be entrepreneurs, pitch a business plan to a panel of seasoned, savvy investors — the “sharks.”

One young man in Anaheim says, “I may not be good at sports — but I’m good at DECA.” There is a shirt that says, “DECA is my sport.” They are “decathletes” (in a pun you hear).

‐Not all of the kids here are competing. Some of them are doing other things, including “Aspire.” This is a kind of life-skills program. Participants learn about budgeting, credit cards, and so on. How do you pay for college? Beyond that, how do you cope with college? How do you succeed in it?

Also: What are the fields of endeavor, the fields of employment, in the world? What might I be good at? What should I strive for? What do I have to contribute? Participants write out a “personal mission statement.”

There is also the benefit of meeting other people — spending time with fellow DECA kids from all over. This is no small benefit. It is fun. It is broadening. And it gives you contacts that may come in handy later.

“Networking” is sort of a tawdry word, in my book. But there’s something to it. A range of acquaintance is a fine thing in life, both for “practical” and for other purposes.

In the Aspire program, students also have the chance to meet with “executive mentors”: men and women who have made their way in the business world and in life, and have something to impart to others.

‐One of these mentors is Allan Bell, of Atlanta. He grew up in Detroit — hard, hard Detroit — the youngest of 16 children. His mother died when he was ten. When he was twelve, he knew that he wanted to be an accountant. Yes, an accountant. And he is a CPA today.

He is also starting a DECA-esque organization, dedicated to teaching young people about entrepreneurship. I say to him, maybe too snarkily, “We can’t all be social workers.” He responds, “Nor should we.”

‐Meeting with their mentors, the students ask such questions as “What did college mean to you?” “How would you do it differently?” “What was your first job?” “What did you learn from it?” “How did you get to where you are?”

There is also a hardy perennial: “What advice would you give your younger self?” That is an interesting, and maybe awkward, question.

‐Believe it or not, I play mentor (mixing a little participation with journalism). What I know about business, you could fit into a thimble. But I’ve picked up some other things along the way. And I have a few nuggets to offer, I think. Let me give you two.

Years ago, an employer gave me some advice that I regard as golden. He said, Applicants are always telling employers — interviewers — what the job can do for them. What the job can do for the applicant. An employer doesn’t give a rat’s behind what the job can do for the applicant. He is not running a charity (though he may be a charitable, even a saintly, person). He wants to know what the applicant can do for him! Tell him what you can do for him!

As I said, golden.

Also: Boy-girl stuff is inevitable in life. And if you can have a sweet romance in college, wonderful. But do your best not to let boy-girl stuff darken or screw up your college experience. There’s plenty of time for that later.

You know?

I’ll continue with the Wide, Wonderful World of DECA tomorrow. See you later.


A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.


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