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D.C. students speak up for chance to intern at the White House, companies

Sophomore Da-Quon Rhones, 15, considers a question during an interview for a summer job at the White House at Ballou High School in Washington on May 11. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Da-Quon Rhones had his first job interview this week. The 15-year-old stood up and shook hands with the White House internship coordinator and the director of a nonprofit, making eye contact and smiling all the way through — just as he had practiced.

He sat up straight in an orange leather chair in the Ballou High School library, wearing his button-down shirt and stylish khakis as the director of the Clifton Foundation lobbed questions his way.

“Have you ever had an idea for a business?” Kristin Gregory asked him.

Da-Quon quickly launched into a story of his time playing peewee football. He was 8, and he wanted the latest pair of cleats, but his mother couldn’t afford them. Instead, she purchased some markers and a plain white pair of shoes, and Da-Quon designed his own.

Now, he told Gregory, he wants to own a sports equipment company. He will first earn an engineering degree — and be the first in his family to go to college —and then design his own clothing. But before that, the high school sophomore wants an internship in the Washington Builders entrepreneurship program at the Clifton Foundation. Or maybe at the White House.

“If my friends knew someone at the White House,” Da-Quon said, “I think I’d gain a lot of popularity.”

D.C. Public Schools is partnering for the first time with the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program to place 500 students in “Career Ready Internships,” where they will earn minimum wage through the city-funded jobs program. Accenture Consulting, the College Board, Destination D.C., the Washington Nationals, the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House are among the nearly 70 participants.

The Summer Youth Employment Program, which has deep roots in the District’s predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, places about 15,000 D.C. residents ages 14 to 24 in subsidized jobs for six weeks.

The idea of the long-standing summer program is to provide students with skills and professional relationships that they can parlay into long-term jobs and careers. Some critics worry that the program does not do enough to provide skills necessary to transform summer jobs into full-time work.

Can a costly summer jobs program lead to permanent work for youths?

The “Career Ready Internship” aims to match students with internships that are related to what they are studying in school, better honing a student’s career interests and providing them with professional contacts.

To qualify for the program, students must be enrolled in a career-focused academy or educational program at a D.C. public school and have completed some employment skills courses.

Da-Quon and six other sophomores at the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism at Ballou High School in Congress Heights interviewed with four potential summer employers on Wednesday afternoon. Each student brought their résumé, with Ballou’s emblem watermarked on the paper.

The interviewers scribbled notes during their one-on-ones with the students, and they later provided feedback to school leaders on how the students presented themselves.

“I was impressed with how aware they were that a first great job is paramount to their future,” said Gregory, the director of the Clifton Foundation, which works to identify and develop strengths in young people.

Employers will be meeting with students at high schools throughout the District in coming weeks; participating employers who do not want to partake in the interview process will be assigned interns.

Bryan Williams, the human resources manager at Destination D.C. — the city’s tourism bureau — said the interns will do administrative, planning and marketing work for five weeks this summer. He’s hoping to make it a rotational program, so the students can see all facets of how the organization works.

“I was very impressed,” Williams said. “They were thoroughly prepared.”

Jakeyla Brooks, 15, was just proud that she made it through the interview. Her nerves yielded some minor stuttering in the beginning, but she says she quickly recovered. When an employer asked about a time she inspired someone, she didn’t hesitate before relaying how she calls a friend who doesn’t like going to school each morning to ensure she gets to class.

D’Andre Jones, 15, said he was interested in interning at the Clifton Foundation because of the program’s community focus. He’s looking forward to the summer opportunity but wants to go to college before he enters the workforce. Last weekend, his sister became the first in his family to graduate from college, and he attended the ceremony.

“I was proud of her, so now it’s my turn to build up the legacy,” he said.

Throughout each 10-minute interview, the students rattled off answers to questions about their strengths, favorite courses, role models and career aspirations.

When the White House internship coordinator asked Da-Quon what he wanted from his summer, he paused for a moment, smiled, then said, “My goal is to have a person I can talk to about work, and a way I can come back after the summer.”

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