Each summer, my company-sponsored internship program hosts about 20-25 young people from both college and high school. Sometimes we partner with mentor programs within the city and allow their handpicked students to join our program and work as well. This is how I ended up with my intern/mentee this year. She is a recent Chicago Public Schools high school graduate and ready to head off to college in less than a week. When she first arrived, she had about two to three months left of her senior year. She was anxious about graduating and a bit timid within our work environment. When summertime came, and our other interns arrived (most of them older), I along with my co-worker, who also helped mentor this young lady, encouraged her to make friends and open up to the early stages of “networking”. She was nervous, but soon she had a regular lunch crew, acquired work friends and even did a bit of complaining!
I was told my intern was coming as she literally walked through the door. I had no project for her to work on, nothing specific and intensive for her to do. My goal, as with all of my interns in the past: teach her what I could work-wise, but try to get to know her on a personal level as well. When she arrived after school, I would ask her about her day, her plans for graduation and prom, find out what was going on with her boyfriend and get a general sense of what her life was like all the while learning about PhotoChat (I think?), her definition of ratchedness and dishing out MJ’s tidbits of advice here and there. All in all, I think she enjoyed her time and I got an up close view of her blossoming into a college-bound young lady.
On Wednesday, her mentor organization held a luncheon that centered around the interns completing their public speaking challenge. This was a PowerPoint presentation, discussing the company they worked for, what they did and the lessons learned during their internship, in front of an audience of mentors and judges. My girl was nervous after having worked on the project for months. I have to admit, so was I. What had she learned? Did we provide a work environment that she could be proud of? How would her presentation stand up to the others? I mean, she briefly interviewed me, so what exactly was she going to discuss? What wise-crack comment had I given her that would come back to bite me in front of all of these people? To my delight, the presentation was excellent! It brought tears to my eyes. I was so proud!
Thursday, was her last day working with us. I got all misty-eyed and gave her a long hug. We pulled away, she was crying and we embraced again. My instinct was to tell her everything I could think of: Don’t put your drink down unattended, You can party, but not too hard, You can do whatever you want to do, Love your boyfriend, but know that there are other boys, Take care of your reputation, it will follow you all four years and lastly, I reiterated a point we had discussed thoroughly in the past- Don’t lose your crown! She nodded in agreement, tears streaming down her face. “I know, I’ll remember”.
I will admit, there were times I had to correct her, gently, but professionally. Her teenaged moodiness and slight eye-rolls would work my nerves. She was your average teenager, with boyfriend drama, best friend issues and high school annoyances. She was still my girl though. Yesterday, at work, I received an e-mail from her company account. She must have scheduled it from the previous day. In it was an attached Word document thanking me for the lessons I taught her. How much she appreciated those lessons. “Not only are you my mentor you are also my big sister that taught me to always keep it classy and always act like a lady.” This must be how a parent/guardian feels! You want them to soak up what you tell them and take it to heart. You want to know that they are listening. You want them to be okay. Most importantly, you don’t want them to make the same mistakes you did.
With the city’s senseless violence and staggering high school dropout rates unwavering, I always take personal care to wish the interns a safe night, weekend, or return to school, with reminders to “be careful” and “be good”. I did the same with my intern this year. I found myself adding her to my prayer list. Not only worrying, but wanting to personally protect her. When it comes to our youth, I believe it really does take a village. As a fellow villager, my work feels sometimes just as tough as a parent, knowing that every little experience, word of encouragement or discouragement, makes a difference in someones life. I still have “old tapes” that play in my head that some former employee, school teacher or classmate said to me many moons ago that serve to shred my self esteem at times. Thoughts I have to overcome and try my best to delete so that I can be productive and move on, releasing all judgement. I want the words that I speak, that might be on auto-play in a young person’s mind that I have encountered to be positive and uplifting. You want to create a better world? It starts with the younger generation and how they feel about themselves. If they love, respect and believe in themselves we all benefit.