For high school students who have never been exposed to a professional office environment, preparing for a career in the white-collar job market can seem like a daunting concept.
An internship program that is coming to the Washington region aims to bridge that gap, training underprivileged high school seniors as information technology specialists and then posting them in paid internships at law firms, accounting offices and other companies. It’s a far cry from the minimum wage jobs high school students normally fill behind fast-food counters or at shopping malls, and it hopes to gives students a comfort level with the working world they can’t get anywhere else.
Genesys Works, started 14 years ago in Houston, is planning to expand to the D.C. region in the coming school year, when it will assign 40 students from six Fairfax County high schools to spend the year in part-time internships at various local companies. Students and educators said the internship has the potential to give them meaningful professional work experience and an impressive line on their resumes.
The program already operates in three regions outside of Houston: Chicago, Minnesota’s Twin Cities and the San Francisco Bay Area. Mahan Tavakoli, executive director of Genesys Works National Capital Region, said that 95 percent of program’s interns go on to college and 84 percent of them are first-generation college students. Some also get hired by the companies that host them for internships.
“It’s a social venture focused on changing the trajectory for young, disadvantaged adults, primarily those who are in poverty,” Tavakoli said.
Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza first learned of the not-for-profit company when she was the chief academic officer of the Houston Independent School District in Texas, where she heard from teachers that the internship seemed to have the power to transform students’ demeanors. She believes putting students in professional work environments can influence them to think differently about their future.
“How do we engage our students who really hadn’t aspired to a professional career?” Garza said.
The program also is in line with the district’s goal of providing experiences and training during high school that more closely aligns with what students might be taking on after high school. Even students who are not interested in information technology will gain “soft skills,” like learning about professional conduct. Those are lessons that are difficult to teach in high school, said Deirdre Lavery, principal of Lee High School, one of the six schools from which the program is drawing applicants.
“A lot of times, we tell kids their work is going to school. But it doesn’t really resemble what the world of work is like,” Lavery said. “It doesn’t give a real clear picture and understanding of what it is like to be a professional. … The experience and opportunity that they’re going to get is very different and much more professional versus if they went out and got a job and worked at a car wash or flipped burgers.”
And unlike other internships where students might fetch coffee or shadow professionals, Garza said, “these students actually provide a meaningful service.”
Tristan Thomas, a 16-year-old junior at Lee High School, has applied and hopes to join the first internship class. He currently works at McDonald’s part-time, but the internship more closely aligns with his interest in computers.
“I’m already into computers as a hobby,” Tristan said. “I thought it was really cool to get a foot in the door as far as an IT career.”
His classmate, 16-year-old Vince Abanilla, also has applied to the program. He likes that the internship could provide him an authentic work experience, and that others might rely on his help.
“It would actually make me feel good,” Vince said. “Hopefully, it will drive me to be better at what I do.”
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