Hamdi Ali, 20, is studying to become an engineer.
Mihn Nguyen, 17, hopes to become a doctor.
Devon Ruiz, 19, has his sights set on a transportation job.
Jujar Heh, 20, plans to become a car mechanic, while his sister Moo Eh, 17, wants to enter the trades.
These young people joined more than 400 others Friday to kick off the SummerWorks internship program, which has placed more than 5,000 youth in summer jobs since it began nearly a decade ago. SummerWorks pairs young people with professional mentors in jobs that offer a first glimpse into what a chosen career might entail.
“They’re pretty supportive,” Juan Diaz, 18, said of the program. “They try to help you in any way they can,”
Diaz begins class this fall at Portland State University, where he plans to study architecture. “I love math and drawing,” he says. “With this I can do both.”
His only other job was at the fast food restaurant, Carl’s Jr. But through SummerWorks, Diaz landed an internship at the Mahlum Architects firm in Portland, where he attends site visits and researches building codes for the staff.
Half of this year’s 1,150 interns will work with departments at Multnomah County, which invested $2 million in the program this year. Commissioner Loretta Smith, a chief supporter of the program told the interns Friday that she still remembers her first job, working in the forestry department at Oregon State University.
“I learned the value of a dollar. I learned the value of being on time. I learned the value of hard work. But most importantly, I learned about my own value,” she said. “I learned that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. And I learned that grit and toughness and determination can get you through any challenge.”
The youth heard messages of inspiration from leaders including from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s Chief of Staff Maurice Henderson, a one-time paper boy, lawn mower and babysitter. “You represent the best of what Portland is, and what Portland can it,” he told the audience. “It is only limited by your imaginations and your willingness to work hard and contribute to this community.”
Other speakers included Gresham City Council Member Jerry Hinton and Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Nelson.
Nelson, who is African American and was raised in Missouri and Arkansas, graduated first in her high school class. The school considered giving the valedictorian honor to the runner-up, a white student. But her family fought and won the honor. That experience working with civil rights attorneys on her case propelled her into law.
She told the youth that they also have a support system - it’s called SummerWorks. Some of the students might take seemingly dull positions doing clerical work in professional offices. But those offices can spark important connections.
“It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you see yourself going,” she said.
Nelson graduated law school Summa Cum Laude, then worked as a public defender with Multnomah Defenders, as an associate with a private firm, then as coordinator of the Portland State University Student Legal and Mediation Services. In 2006, then-Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed Nelson to the bench.
“I prepared myself. I built on relationships,” she said. “And you don’t know who you might need. It’s not about the title. I’m no more important that the janitor. Than the service staff.”
She encouraged the youth – many of whom come from immigrant and refugee families or who are people of color – to learn about their history and build on the strength because, “if you don’t know who you are, you’ll fall for anything.”
“Never let anyone define you. Define yourself. You are not the zipcode you were born into,” she said. “Work hard. Take risks. Be courageous. You stand on the shoulders of people who came before you.”