Internships push students to turn dreams into reality

August 29, 2017

Story by Rachel Ramirez. Photos by Carlos Teronnes.

The SummerWorks internship introduces more than 1,000 high school and college students to career opportunities. This year Multnomah County sponsored more than half the youth, giving them 180 hours of paid work as well as mentorship and trainings.

Each summer, interns embark in real world experiences surrounded by professionals who serve as their mentors. Here are the stories of three SummerWorks interns: Moo Eh Pepoe, Juan Diaz and Sanzidah Mohammed.

Moo Eh Pepoe spent her summer working for Habitat for Humanity

Moo Eh Pepoe, 17 years old

Moo Eh Pepoe is a rising senior at David Douglas High School and a SummerWorks Intern at Habitat for Humanity. Before coming to the United States, Pepoe said she and her family endured hardships for many years as refugees in Southeast Asia.

At the age of 2, Pepoe’s family fled Myanmar to escape war and violence. Although she was too young to recall a shred of memory from a tragic experience, she grew up hearing stories of how they ended up in a refugee camp across the border in Thailand.

Pepoe and her family crossed the border into Thailand  and stayed in Mae La Oon Refugee Camp, a cramped place of bamboo huts that houses about 10,000 refugees.  Eight years later, in 2010, they immigrated to the United States.

Pepoe spoke Karen and Burmese when she arrived in Oregon at age 10. She did not know how to speak English or read the English alphabet. she and her family struggled to navigate the new environment and culture.

“We didn’t know how to do anything,” she said. “I remember we didn’t even take a shower for a week until the manager came and showed us how to turn on the water.”

Pepoe and her family arrived with a just a few belongings. Each family member had one pair of shoes, which they left outside their apartment door in Portland.

“In my country, we left the shoes outside and not inside the house,” she said. “We kept it outside [in Portland], people stole our shoes so a few was left. When we go out, we have to take turns wearing shoes, we all had the same size.”

Despite it all, Pepoe has a bubbly positive outlook. In school, kids would make fun of her, but she refused to take it personally.

“The thing with me is that I may not have a lot of friends, but I’m just a person who communicates with everybody,” she said. “I don’t have a main group of friends, but I get along with people.”

Pepoe does not plan to attend college. Instead she wants to support her family by helping around the house. She enjoys handiwork and someday wants to work as an auto body mechanic. She hopes to enhance her skills and learn more from the SummerWorks program.

Juan Diaz spent his summer with the Mahlum Architects firm in Portland.

Juan Diaz, 18 years old

Juan Diaz graduated last year from  Sam Barlow High School, in Gresham, and completed a first year of college at Portland Community College. He’ll enter Portland State University, majoring in architecture. This summer, Diaz is an intern at Mahlum Architects.

Drawing and math propelled Diaz down  a path toward architecture. Because of a high school AutoCAD program, he developed curiosity in design and started to research.

Through the SummerWorks Program, Diaz developed skills and learned several components beyond what was taught in college courses. One of the major things that Diaz learned is that there is more to it than drawing and design.

“It was an opportunity for me to see what it’s like to be an architect,” he said. “It’s different from someone telling you what it’s like to actually experiencing it.”

Until recently, Diaz did know where his life was going. High school, he said, was “not the best” in terms of social life, influences and the environment. Nonetheless, during the last semester of his senior year, he tried to turn the table.

“During my last year, I stepped it up since I noticed that I might not graduate,” he said. “I worked really hard to turn things around and everything went uphill from there.”

Diaz graduated high school and became a recipient of Future Connect Scholarship, which opened doors to new opportunities. Each day, his parents and siblings served as his motivation and inspiration to climb the ladder. Ten years from now, Diaz said he hopes to work for a big architecture firm. That is, if he doesn’t own one of his own.

Sanzidah Ali Mohammed worked as a teacher’s assistant in Centennial High School, where she also attends classes.

Sanzidah Mohammed, 17 years old

Sanzidah Ali Mohammed is a rising senior and teacher’s assistant with the SummerWorks program in Centennial High School. Mohammed considers the SummerWorks program an opportunity to grow and network. Beyond SummerWorks and school, she also works as an interpreter for Catholic Charities and attends courses at the Center for Advanced Learning.

Mohammed was born and raised in Malaysia. Her parents were refugees from Myanmar, who fled to Malaysia to escape persecution against Rohingyan people . The family immigrated to the United States in August, 2014 in search for education, job and a better life. But after growing up in Malaysia, Mohammed found it difficult to transition to the American culture.

“My life in Malaysia and here are really different in every aspect,” she said. “The food, religion, culture and everything’s different.”

Language, nonetheless, was not a barrier for Mohammed. She speaks several languages including Malay, Indonesian, Burmese, Rohingyan, Hindi and English. She has taken courses in Chinese and Arabic, and is now focusing on Japanese and Turkish.

Mohammed’s parents received just two years of formal education when they were young, and that has spurred Mohammed to dedicate her life to learning, and to making her parents proud. She wants to be a doctor. After high school, she plans to spend a summer in Malaysia to meet a sponsor who has offered to pay for her education in Turkey. And if it does not work out, she plans to apply to colleges in the United States.