This article originally appeared in the Friday Nov. 22, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.
With more businesses looking for prospective employees with job experience, the La Joya ISD Academy of Health Science & STEM is preparing students for a career outside of school by helping them get into the workforce.
At the start of the school year, the campus began offering paid and unpaid internships during the semester for students taking Agustín de la Garza’s business marketing management class. Under this internship program, de la Garza’s 19 students leave the campus twice a week in two and a half hour blocks to intern at one of the businesses partnered up with the campus.
“The program is designed to help students be more exposed to opportunities that are out there that they probably weren’t aware of before, de la Garza said. “We have a few of our local businesses that have partnered with us and we help each other. They help us with our students and we help them by providing students to help them in their businesses. So it’s a two way street with a primary focus on the students.”
The internship program has been offered to students in the past but during the summer and on a voluntary basis.
Now, district Business and Community Engagement Specialist Julie Garza said, it is being offered as a credit for students.
“It’s so they can have that career exposure early on,” Garza said. “Some of these students will go to a workplace they’re thinking of working in and decide now, as high school students, whether or not it’s their path. They’re getting those experiences now as opposed to going to college, getting a four-year degree and then deciding ‘this isn’t for me’ after a few years of working.”
The businesses partnered with the campus are Terry Physical Therapy, M2 Engineering, Walgreens, Buckner Family Hope Center, RGV Vocational Services, La Joya Dental, KFC and the AHSP Pharmacists Office.
Student interns are with the businesses for four weeks before rotating to a different business at the end of that period and are evaluated by their employer and are graded on the class based on their evaluation, district Academies Director Guadalupe Chavez said.
“We want students to gain valuable work experience and to develop or refine their employability skills, “Chavez said. “Even doing something as simple as answering the phone is a skill and businesses and colleges are looking for students that are problem solvers and have the social skills to be successful. With this program, you’re going to have students who can network with professionals already in the field who can guide them into being a model employee and maybe even help them find the job suited for them.”
Among the student interns is Felipe Lopez who is volunteering at Buckner, a non-profit based in La Joya that provides aid to families in distress. Lopez works with the community engagement department of the organization and credited the internship for giving him social skills.
“I feel like I’ve grown to be more responsible since I’m gaining so much hands on experience and know what they expect outside the classroom in a professional setting,” Lopez said, adding that this outreach position is helping him toward his plans of being a registered nurse. “They help out with families and I was interested because I want to help other families. It helps me deal with families because being a registered nurse you have to deal with ages of different people and understand and be empathetic of them.”
Another student intern Jasmine Balderas, a senior interning with Terry’s Physical Therapy in its La Joya location. Her duties include working the front desk, shadow physicians, upload reports to the server and occasionally help patients with their exercises.
“I know I want to do something in the medical field and the physical therapists there are very supportive and are giving me an insight on what it’s like to work in the medical field,” Balderas said. “Since I work with patients I am finding ways to talk to them and being understanding of them to better communicate with them so I’ll better know what I’m doing.”
Those social skills of communicating with people and being more confident are skills that are attractive for employers, de la Garza argued.
He said he first realized these soft skills were important when he first started teaching at the La Joya school district when the district partnered with Mission Regional Medical Center and spoke with the director of the hospital on the hospital’s hiring practices.
“The director told me, it’s very easy to hire an X-ray technician or a nurse or any kind of individual that’s licensed to work, but it’s difficult to find individuals who can communicate to each other, empathizes with patients and have a level of respect and professionalism the hospital requires,” de la Garza recalled. “It’s a big part of their interview process now. They’re no longer called ‘soft skills,’ they’re called ‘employability skills.’”
“These students talk about being more social and confident which is what a teacher wants, a more social and confident student means more class engagement. These skills are leveraged into the classroom and in the workforce,” de la Garza added.
The La Joya school district is in negotiations with other businesses, including the Agua Special Utility District and Rio Script Pharmacy, to provide internships to students at the next rotation period, Garza said.
“Students will have more options on what path they want to explore, we’re growing,” Garza said.