SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Deja Sims is still in college, but this summer she was also working for the city of San Francisco as a supervisor in charge of 16 high school interns.
“You’re going to need leadership skills in anything you do if you want to move up the ranks; if you want that mobility in a job setting,” she told us, as we watched her, busy at work with Project Pull, a summer program run by the City and County of San Francisco.
Leadership was just one lesson among many. “I’m learning professionalism, how to behave in a public government setting, and how to work with a team.”
Project Pull teaches promising high school students from diverse backgrounds what government work is all about. The crucial word here is diverse because the long-term goal is to diversify the city’s workforce. As a paid internship, it is essential for low-income kids who need the money and might otherwise have to take minimum wage jobs that would not put them on a career path.
Deja and Johanna Cortez-Hernandez are both college juniors, and as team leaders, they worked with other college students leading the younger, high school interns. They also served as liaisons with the professionals who work for the city and county, so they had to learn to communicate up and down the ladder.
Deja and Johanna got the internship through Students Rising Above. Since 2007 Internship Program Manager Lauren Brener has pounded the pavement securing coveted summer jobs for SRA. She has seen internships change lives, and knows they are crucial for landing professional jobs and lifting oneself out of poverty. In an article for the Huffington Post, Brener wrote:
“According to a survey of 50,000 employers conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the respondents indicated that internships rank first in the sequence of “relative importance of attributes in evaluating graduates for hire,” followed by jobs in college. College major, volunteer experience, extracurricular activities, relevance of coursework, college GPA, and college reputation trailed behind, in that order.”
Lisa Miles, who runs Project Pull, gives us a perfect example of the behavior gap between a kid from a low-income, inner city neighborhood and the professional world. She’s the one who trains kids who may be a little rough around the edges.
“Young men like to wear their pants below their thighs sometimes, and so we teach them, you know in the workplace, we don’t dress like that,” said Miles. “You don’t have your cellphones out in your hands while walking; you don’t have your headset on your ears … when people are walking by, greet them … always be courteous.”
These are important lessons not just for the high school students, but for the college-age team leaders as well. Johanna told us a few of the things she’d learned. “I had no idea being ‘on time early’ is ‘on time’ and ‘on time’ is late,” she said, which is not easy since she has to take public transportation from East Palo Alto.
“At first I thought like being on time, on the dot is great, but that’s not the rule for every type of employment,” Johanna noted. The more competitive the workplace, the truer that rule is.
There is another benefit SRA students gain through internships – networking. Most SRA interns are the first in their families to go to college and they often live in the ghettos and barrios of the Bay Area. Many are not living with their parents, or their parents are severely marginalized or don’t speak English.
“As a first generation student, my parents don’t have certain people that I can meet, that I can shadow, especially working in the public sector or anything related to government,” said Johanna.
Brener says those professional contacts are crucial. From her article:
“An often-quoted ABC News report found that up to 80% of jobs are landed through networking. But if you grew up in circumstances where exposure and access to the professional world are rare, how do you make those essential career-building connections?”
A backstory here further illustrates the experience gap. Both Johanna and Deja are from East Palo Alto – a city known for its violent crime rate and poverty – but they graduated from Eastside College Prep, a groundbreaking college prep school for low-income kids. Now it has a dormitory as well for the many students with fragile living situations.
That was certainly the case for Deja, who we met two years ago, just as she was getting ready to graduate from Eastside.
She showed us her old dorm room where she lived for three and a half years – the longest she had ever lived in one place.
Deja was only eight when her mom simply abandoned her at her grandmother’s home in East Palo Alto. That began a life full of insecurity.
“She was in and out of jail to be honest,” explained Deja, describing her mom. “Like now, she’s not really around. She’s not really in my life at all … Even if she is out of jail, she’ll call me every three months. I try and get her to call me once a month so I know she’s okay.” It became quickly apparent to us, who was parenting who.
Her mom moved around a lot, along with her 11 children, many half brothers and sisters. They moved from Mountain View, to East Palo Alto, San Jose, Modesto, back to East Palo Alto, often leaving different siblings with various relatives.
Her mom tried to keep her drug habit a secret, but she would often simply leave the kids. Deja was the one who took charge. “I made sure my sisters took baths and were in bed, watched movies,” she said.
Books and school are what saved her. “I loved school,” she said. “And learning – the more the better.” She told us the library was her favorite place, where she’d read entire shelves of books. “It took me to a different place,” she said. “It put me in someone else’s world and not mine.”
Now, she’s a junior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, majoring in Psychology. As I listened to her articulately describe her summer internship, I could see how well she was functioning in the professional world. She had matured in the two years since I’d last seen her. She was polished and confident and I couldn’t help but think that her future will be so different from her childhood.
It demonstrates that Brener and the rest of the SRA Development Department and Internship Program are getting results.
The fact that Project Pull has hired many SRA interns over the years is further proof. Miles has seen how well prepared they are. “These SRA young adults, they just seem to want to strive and go up there and move up to the top of the ranks you know,” said Miles.
Moving up as in Rising Above… and internships like the one at Project Pull are helping do just that.