Francess Kargbo, a senior at Mount Vernon High School, said she was apprehensive about her internship with Genesys Works, which assigned her to the information technology department of international commercial law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
Her only previous work experience was at Taco Bell, and the 17-year-old from the Alexandria section of Fairfax County had no experience in IT. She said she worried she was not smart enough.
But after her first couple of days on the job last week, she said she felt like she had a place.
“I fit in really comfortably,” Kargbo said. “They make me feel welcome. They’re very kind, and they’re very supportive.”
Her internship is through Genesys Works, an organization that trains underprivileged high school seniors — many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college — to work as IT interns. The program aims to give them a taste of the corporate world at a young age, paying them and offering mentorship to help them get to college.
The organization, founded in Houston in 2002 by corporate strategist Rafael Alvarez, hopes to expand to 15 more cities by 2022, an ambitious goal aided by a $2 million grant from AT&T. The contribution was announced Tuesday. The expansion could mean more internships in the D.C. area, where the organization set up shop this year in Fairfax County with 40 students.
The program bridges the gap between traditional schooling and the real world at a time when educators and policymakers are aiming to make high school education more relevant to the needs of the workforce. Virginia has begun to remake high school to allow students to earn credit for internships, jobs and apprenticeships.
Alvarez, who worked for Compaq Computer when he started Genesys Works, said he was inspired to create the program when he served on the board of a charter school in Houston. When he spoke to the school’s graduates, he learned that many of them were entering the same low-wage fields as their parents.
He wondered: “If I could give the students the opportunity to demonstrate that they could succeed in the corporate world, how would that change their senior year?”
Alvarez said the new infusion of funding will mean that the program can be more quickly scaled to cities that want to try it, and the program will soon solicit requests for proposals to have Genesys Works chapters. Communities have to put up some of their own money, which can come from public or private sources.
Students accepted into the program are put through an intensive, eight-week training session during the summer before their senior year. There, they learn how to be IT specialists and about corporate etiquette, such as the importance of dressing well and making a good impression.
Once they begin their internship, they continue meeting with Genesys Works staff, who counsel them on applying to college and for scholarships. The mentorship continues informally into college.
Mohamed Wazeer Mohideen, a 17-year-old senior at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, is interning at AT&T. He rises at 5:30 a.m., is at school by 7:30 a.m. and then shuttles to his internship at 1:30 p.m., working for about four hours.
Mohideen loves spreadsheets and Excel and is interested in IT because some of his parents’ friends work in the field. He said he was excited to apply his unusual passion for spreadsheets to an internship.
“For me, it’s just like playing video games,” he said.
Manuel Robles, 23, graduated from the Genesys Works program and is now an IT senior support analyst for a renewable energy company in Chicago. He said his internship, with Chicago Public Schools’ IT department, completely changed his outlook.
“In my family, no one had ever attended college,” Robles said. “No one had ever had an office job. I didn’t know it was even a possibility for me.”
He had planned to go to trade school and become an electrician. But then he saw how much progress he had made learning the ropes of IT. So he changed his path: He decided that he wanted to someday be a chief information officer. He went to St. Xavier University to study computer science, landing a job right out of college.
Kargbo, who aspires to be a doctor, said Genesys Works has helped her with her college and scholarship applications. Her parents did not go to college, and she struggled to navigate the complex process. Kargbo said the program already has given her the same kind of boost Robles found.
“I had a bad lack of confidence,” Kargbo said. Now, she said, “I can do anything I set my mind to.”