Hundreds of students enrolled in grades seven through 12 received a preview of the working world at the second “Challenge Success: Building Your Path” event held Saturday morning at the La Cañada High School campus.

For more than three hours, leaders with local ties, representing various industries throughout Los Angeles County, spoke in classroom break-out sessions about their jobs and career paths. Longtime civic leader and La Cañada Flintridge Mayor Terry Walker also spoke on her unique journey to her current position heading up the City Council.


A districtwide initiative since 2017, Challenge Success is a research-based program from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, which partners with schools, families and communities to promote a broader definition of success to support students who are healthy and engaged.

LCHS sophomore Claire Saydeh sat engaged listening to Kai Ryssdal, a La Cañada resident and host of “Marketplace” on National Public Radio. Ryssdal has children in the local school system.


After hearing the radio host’s presentation, Saydeh said she had not originally planned to attend Saturday’s event until a friend told her about the “really cool” people speaking.

“I came here to get a feel of the different industries to get into and what they are,” she said. “It’s really interesting to hear how these people got to where they are. I never thought about going into journalism until my mom told me to listen to this guy on the radio.”

Actor Courtney Vance, another La Cañadan, gave the morning’s keynote address, titled “There’s no Magic Pill - You Gotta Work!” An Emmy award-winning actor, Vance studied history at Harvard, then made a career in Hollywood. One of his most notable roles was portraying Johnnie Cochran in the FX series “The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.” He currently has roles coming up in Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions’ “Ben is Back” and also plays a pivotal role in HBO’s upcoming drama horror series “Lovecraft Country.” He recently played a role in Wes Anderson’s Fox Searchlight animated film “Isle of Dogs.”

“You’ve got to get that silver spoon out,” said Vance, who worked various odd jobs when he was young, such as delivering newspapers and cleaning toilets. “You’ve got to get in there and get dirty.”

He added that it is “wonderful” to be able to address members of his community to, in essence, help promote the ideal for local students to dream big.

James Cartnal, executive director of student programs and services, said what the school is trying to emphasize with the Challenge Success initiative is that the route to success is varied and a zig-zag path.

Mimi Aung, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, gave the final keynote address of the day, speaking on the design of the Mars helicopter. In her breakout session to a packed classroom, Aung discussed the different engineering specializations available to students considering a career in science and engineering.

“It’s a special kind of engineering,” she said about her role dealing with an apparatus going into space. “You can’t go in and make repairs when something breaks.”

She told students to take advantage of these “useful years” in school to figure out how to advance their talents. Aung highlighted the work of investor Elon Musk, the chief executive and co-founder of SpaceX and Tesla Inc. She asked attendees what they would like to invent in the future, citing the high-speed Hyperloop proposal that would connect Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area with heavily reduced travel time.

“A plane ride to New York is five hours,” she said. “It would be nice to meet a friend in New York for lunch and be back here [soon thereafter].”

Aung said she is honored to talk to the students and the local community about what she does. “Engineering is fundamental and cross-generational. I’m instilling the idea of how fundamental engineering is to the standard of living,” she said.

Writer, producer and director Tamika Miller talked to students about her participation in a Doritos commercial contest where, although she did not make the final cut, she got a chance, and helped her forward the movement of getting more women and people of color into directing commercials.

“When asked what you do, claim it, speak it,” she told her audience. “Don’t be shy about it.”

Seventh-grade student Rose Miller said Miller’s talk motivated her.

“I like to write stories,” she said. “She gave me inspiration for writing and creating things.”

Matt Sanderson is a contributing writer to Times Community News.