Internships get students' feet wet

Anyone who's tried to get a job right out of high school or college has likely encountered a frustrating Catch 22 — no one will hire you without work experience, but you can't get work experience until someone hires you. And so grads head to the Verizon store or the mall, hoping a few months as a cashier or manager will propel them into the serious world of work.

La Cañada High School senior Marne Fairhurst and junior Ben Blanco will likely be spared that cruel fate. They are two of six students spending the summer working at area businesses, thanks to a six-week internship program run through the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce.

Fairhurst and Blanco are learning the finer points of marketing and publicity, research and public policy as paid interns for the Student Planning Services and La Cañada Flintridge City Hall, respectively.

"It's like a summer job, but you can do so much more than working in a restaurant or a store," says Fairhurst, who works in the education counseling firm's Pasadena and La Cañada offices. "It's a great opportunity to get your feet wet in the real world."

Also participating in this year's program are local students Dan Cohen, Brian Kim, Justin Cohen and Jonathan Connelly, who are working at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, Allen Lund Co., YMCA of the Foothills and Citizens Business Bank, respectively.

This collaboration offers businesses deeper community engagement and gives students meaningful work experience, says Chamber President Pat Anderson. Interns also receive independent study credits and $1,200 scholarships, with another $800 awarded to the top intern.

"It's an outstanding program," Anderson says. "Our interns enjoy it, the employers really appreciate it and we've had several parents tell us it's the best thing their child's done".

This year's competition to get into the program was stiff, and only 11 were chosen for final interviews, says Anderson. They were questioned by employers in a round-robin style and whittled down to six. Businesses reached consensus about who would go where.

For Peter Castro, a public safety coordinator for the city of La Cañada Flintridge and this year's internship supervisor, the decision was easy — 16-year-old Blanco, who'd participated in the YMCA's Youth and Government program, was a clear standout.

"What I looked at was who, out of all the people I interviewed, presented themselves well, who seemed really interested in local government and who would fit our environment," says Castro. "Ben seemed to be a great fit."

Blanco is currently surveying residents about local filming permits and researching the city's disparate noise ordinances to create one comprehensive law that could go before the City Council.

"If it passes, it's going to be an actual new law in the city of La Cañada Flintridge, so this is the real thing," Castro says.

Now in its third year, the internship program was initially conceived by former Chamber Chairman Joel Peterson, founder and CEO of Student Planning Services and a governing board member for La Cañada Unified School District. The chamber wanted to work with the community and helping students prepare for college and life beyond seemed like a good cause.

His wife, Darleen Peterson, director of Claremont Graduate University's public health department, helped administratively with the program, patterning it after one created for her campus and adapting it as needed.

As a first-time participating employer, Joel Peterson was looking for someone with poise and personality who could interact well with adults. Fairhurst is compiling a private school database that will support clients with middle-school students and is also meeting with La Cañada business owners to discuss partnerships as part of a wider marketing campaign.

"I'm interested in opening my own business some day, or working in the business industry. This was a great opportunity to take that first step," Fairhurst says.

And even though Blanco still has a few years more of school to go before his job search begins, the skills he's learning now as a de facto city employee are sure to take him far.

"I know when you apply for jobs, a lot of that relies on your experience," he says, "so I thought I'd better start early."


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