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Project EGO Motivates Average Students : A Father’s Plan Helps Teens Discover Careers

Times Staff Writer

At the start of her junior year at Palos Verdes High School, Amy Hanson was a bashful student with no clear idea what she wanted to do with her life.

In the academically competitive climate of Palos Verdes High, where most students go on to college, Hanson was an average student, neither a high achiever nor one who needed extra help with her schoolwork.

‘Kept to Myself’

As Hanson recalls it, she figured she would go to college, but she wasn’t sure what she would study. She says she was too shy to approach school counselors for guidance.

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“I just kind of kept to myself,” she said.

Her sense of purpose and self-worth got a big boost when she found out about a program designed to help students find direction: Project EGO--Exploring Growth Opportunity.

Through the program, Hanson got a part-time job at the Palos Verdes Review, a local magazine, and discovered an interest in photography and newspaper production. After graduating from high school in 1988, Hanson, who is 19, continued working for the magazine while studying photography at Harbor College.

Project EGO “helped me realize what I wanted to do and how to get there,” Hanson said in an interview. “They helped me get the courage to go out and get a job.”

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The program, started four years ago by Rancho Palos Verdes resident Sam Goldberg, tries to help students formulate a life plan.

“There’s an awful lot of kids who are not top students, who aren’t getting direction because of a lack of motivation,” Goldberg said. “A lot of kids were wandering around rather aimlessly.”

At nine monthly seminars over the course of a school year, students in the program listen to speakers, usually from the business community, and discuss everything from career hopes to resumes and how to act and dress during a job interview. Students are also matched with an adult counselor outside the school to advise them on careers and anything else they want to talk about.

Project EGO students earn credits toward graduation if their attendance is good, said Linda McNulty, who oversees the program. Participants also compete for $5,000 in scholarships, distributed among six students. The money is to be used toward college or any kind of career training, McNulty said.

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A Mix of Students

“Our emphasis is not on who’s going or not going to college, but on how they’re going to go about doing what they want to do,” McNulty said.

The program attracts “a real mix of students,” including some students who want to go to college and others who don’t, Goldberg said. Some participants are undecided on a career, while others have chosen a field of interest but are uncertain how to proceed with training or education.

Goldberg came up with the idea five years ago as a way to help his son, who was “bright and capable,” but “was struggling in high school and didn’t seem to be going in the right direction,” he said.

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Although his son eventually transferred from Palos Verdes High to a private school--and recently graduated from the University of Arizona--Goldberg forged ahead with the concept to provide an alternative for other students.

The first five students in the program worked at Goldberg’s packaging firm in Torrance, he said. Now, the program has grown to about 60 students from the Peninsula’s four high schools.

Participants have worked part-time in fields ranging from graphic design to retail and veterinary assistance--all more “meaningful” positions than the fast-food jobs that most likely would have taken otherwise, Goldberg said.

In some cases, like Hanson’s, a part-time job can continue indefinitely and even lead to a full-time career after graduation. Other EGO graduates are working full-time in a variety of jobs they started while in the program, or are attending college, officials said.

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The program has been praised by Peninsula school district officials and has received a presidential citation for Private Sector Initiatives from the White House.

But Project EGO’s biggest fans seem to be its students.

At a program meeting last week, students listened to a presentation by judo instructor Jan Trussell detailing her transformation from lackadaisical high school dropout to college graduate training for the 1992 Olympics.

Choose Career Goal

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The presentation gave way to a discussion among students of how Project EGO has helped them.

“Last year I wasn’t really paying much attention in school,” said Palos Verdes High School senior Rachel Frankel, 17. But after participating in Project EGO this year, she said, “I’ve excelled. I’ve really weeded out my likes and dislikes and decided what I wanted to do.”

The program has helped her improve her grades and choose a career goal. She wants to become a child psychologist, Frankel said.

Rolling Hills junior Ray Goering, 16, said his grades were good before Project EGO, but he had no idea what he wanted to study in college or what kind of career he wanted to pursue until last week, when the group did an exercise to help them discover careers for which they would be most suited.

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But the exercise, which involved personality traits and interests, helped him narrow his choices to teaching or journalism, Goering said.

‘This Is Cool’

Without Project EGO, Goering said, “I’m not sure it would have been pointed out so clearly. It may have taken me a year in college of trial and error, finding the right class.”

Rolling Hills senior Andrew Beckham, 17, decided that a traditional college wasn’t for him at all.

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“I read up (about Project EGO) and it was about getting jobs and stuff, and I said this is cool,” Beckham said. He said he will be attending an automotive technology school in Arizona in September.

School district officials, including counselors and administrators, are pleased with the program’s results.

“It has made a difference in many lives,” said Kelly Johnson, principal of Palos Verdes High School. “It builds their self-esteem and it lets adults in the community have an opportunity to give something back and to see youngsters in a different light.”

An Alternative

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Project EGO has been especially helpful in providing an alternative to students in the Palos Verdes Unified School district, where 92% of graduates go to college, said district spokeswoman Nancy Mahr.

“This kind of program really picks up a lot of students who want to find out about the working world,” Mahr said. Project EGO is a collaborative effort among business people, community volunteers, the Palos Verdes Unified School District, and the nonprofit Palos Verdes Peninsula Education Foundation. It is sponsored by the Community Assn. of the Peninsula.

Students are often referred to the program by counselors such as Rolling Hills’ Emily Wierenga. “We usually look for a kid who would probably profit from individual attention, a student who certainly is capable of going on to college with extra attention from someone outside the school,” Wierenga said.

Palos Verdes senior Elaine Motamedi, 17, said the perspective of an outside counselor has been a big help. “With your parents, you don’t really talk about what they went through,” she said. “It’s interesting to do that with other people.”

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