College & Workforce Readiness

Internship Pairs Detroit Students With GM Retirees

By Caralee J. Adams — August 06, 2013 9 min read
Jameel Harris, foreground right, a senior at Cody College Prep Upper School of Teaching and Learning in Detroit, cleans up brush outside an abandoned house near his school. He and the other students are participating in the GM Student Corps, a new program sponsored by General Motors, in which they work with retired company employees on community-service projects and receive career mentoring and other instruction.
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Volunteer Tom Parkhill, 69, plans to give students on his Cody team his business card at the end of the program. “They have expectations. Our job is to do what we can to make those expectations happen,” he said. “You need door openers and people who can help.”

The grass and weeds surrounding the burnt-out house across the street from Cody College Prep Upper School of Teaching and Learning were about 4 feet tall when the crew began its work here at 9 a.m. on a recent day in July.

The 10 paid high school interns from Cody, alongside three General Motors retirees and a recent graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy, decided that securing the abandoned properties was the top priority for their newly formed GM Student Corps team. Not only were the homes an eyesore, they were also potentially dangerous: The empty structures were magnets for illegal activity, and neighborhood children had to walk in the streets because of the brush-covered sidewalks.

Wearing fluorescent orange vests, work gloves, and hats with the Student Corps’ sunshine logo, the group used saws, clippers, weed-whackers, rakes, and brooms to chop and bag the debris. After three hours of work and two water breaks, bag lunches arrived in a Chevy Silverado.

The students crossed the street to the park and packed up the tools, knowing they otherwise might disappear before the young people finished lunch in the air-conditioned school cafeteria.

“Look,” said Dawin Wright, 61, the team leader and a retired executive, smiling and pointing to the cleared property and adjacent homes the students boarded up earlier in the week. “Those kids are walking down the sidewalk. They didn’t do that yesterday.”

Cody rising senior Kristi Trader said the Student Corps experience has been good for her and the neighborhood. “You are helping the community by cleaning it up, making it look nicer, and inspiring people to help and have more respect for it,” she said.

“And you are really helping yourself. You learn things like how to pace yourself and be a hard worker at the same time.”

The Cody team is one of 11 in the Student Corps in what started as a summer employment program, but morphed into a comprehensive experience that combines service, life-skills education, and mentoring. All told, 110 high school students, 60 retirees, and 12 college interns are involved in this, its first year. Since 2010, when the GM Foundation gave $27 million to the United Way to create “networks of excellence” in a handful of high-need area schools, company liaisons have been working with students. Last fall, the idea of a summer internship program emerged.

GM retirees, who oversee the teams, give encouragement to students who are growing up in a city that just filed for bankruptcy, where many grocery stores have bars on the windows, unemployment is higher than the national average at 16.3 percent, and about one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.

“It’s not like this everywhere,” Mr. Wright told his charges in a mentoring session during lunch. “Until you see something different [from Detroit], that’s the way you think it is.”

Broad Exposure

Company officials wanted to do more for schools than write a check. So they turned to Mike DiGiovanni, 65, a retired GM executive, and asked him to become the director of the Student Corps and recruit fellow retirees.

Mike DiGiovanni, the director of the Student Corps, talks about the program near Central Collegiate Academy, where students built pergolas that will be installed in Gordon Park, a few blocks away.

“Our program is unique because it’s not just putting kids to work, it’s teaching them about life,” said Mr. DiGiovanni “It’s giving them a paid internship and GM on their résumé to set them up for life. This is about exposing them to the skills and education they need to succeed in life.”

The retirees wanted the summer to be about more than cleaning up parks. The organizers soon realized the breadth of retiree talent and considered how to fill rainy days with activities, said Heidi Magyar, the manager of Student Corps. Also, the company had miscalculated the caliber of the students—most have aspirations to go to college—so the program expanded in response.

“These kids have grit. They are determined to be successful in life,” said Mr. DiGiovanni. “Their need and drive was way beyond what we anticipated.”

Research solidly shows that having a mentor can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds who often don’t have the support system and social capital needed to make it in college, said David Conley, the director of the Center for Educational Policy

Research at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. Mentors “take something that is abstract and make it real,” he said.

The transition process from high school to college is far more complex and demanding than most schools acknowledge, said Mr. Conley. In these kinds of programs, students learn skills that help them feel more in control of their lives, which is a huge step in the process of getting ready for college, Mr. Conley said.

“It’s a great example,” he said of the GM program, “but ultimately, you need government to step in, colleges to step up, and school systems to reach out to local corporations and others to help make it happen.”

Inspiring Confidence

The GM teams work on their community-service projects from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for 10 weeks, leaving lunch and occasional Mondays and Fridays for seminars on such topics as financial management and decisionmaking conducted by retirees and current employees, along with tours of the company’s facilities and a college campus. The retirees get a modest stipend, and the students are paid slightly more than minimum wage for a 30-hour work week. The college interns provide logistical support to the crews and answer students’ questions about college life.

Inside Central College Academy, Shabria Hathorn, left, and Josephine Holmes build a pergola, which will be installed in a nearby park. The 2013 graduates and other students from disadvantaged schools in Detroit are working with General Motors retirees, who teach them work and life skills in preparation for college and and workplace.

Yvonna Olds, 22, an intern who graduated from Detroit Mercy in May, said she frequently tells the students that, unlike in high school, there won’t be someone in college telling them what to do and to be prepared for the experience to be hard. “You have to want it bad enough,” said Ms. Olds. “In college, you have to develop a personality where you are a go-getter. I encourage them to have the right mindset.”

Geneva Brooks, 17, who wants to study social work in college, said she is grateful for the advice from the mentors and is enjoying the program. “You hear people complaining this is such a bad neighborhood, but they don’t do anything about it. We are stepping out of our comfort zone,” she said. “We are having fun and we are learning.”

Students talk about the awe of working for a big-name company like GM, although some wish the internship was at its headquarters downtown rather than outdoors in the heat. Others worry that the grass at the abandoned houses will grow back and the trash will accumulate again. But most convey a sense of satisfaction in the work they’ve accomplished and are full of questions about the future.

In Detroit, the four-year high school graduation rate is about 65 percent, and many of those in the Student Corps programs want to be the first in their families to attend college, if they can secure scholarships.

Marilyn Gripper, 57, a retiree volunteering at Cody, is gathering resources on scholarships and financial aid for the students, who, she says, are eager for information. “We are trying to inspire them. The biggest barrier is not believing they can do it,” she said. “I’ve been inspired by them. They are yearning to learn.”

Back in Cody’s cafeteria, Mr. Wright, the team leader, has written on a white board: “Love Yourself.”

“My job is to impart as much knowledge with you and in you so when I transition off, you will be OK … to make you independent, strong, and confident,” he said. In 45 minutes, he packs in advice on staying away from bad influences, a demonstration of how to walk with a purpose, and tips on how to carry on a conversation with someone new.

At the end of the lunch period, it was time to tackle more weeds outside.

“We aren’t here to make you professional gardeners,” Mr. Wright said. “The grass and the clipping, that’s the external stuff. This is what this it is about,” he said referring to the lunchtime conversation.

‘Don’t Be Scared’

Across town, at Osborn College Preparatory Academy, GM retiree Jack Hazen, 70, led a Student Corps team painting a small, weather-worn garage for a senior citizen. The students and retirees developed the business plan for the summer, including compiling a supply list for the repair work and sprucing up Osborn’s baseball field.

“They learned [that] in business that everybody has to live within a budget. We tried to emphasize that we can’t just throw money at everything,” said Mr. Hazen.

In the 87-degree heat, students took occasional breaks to splash themselves with icy water from the cooler. Among them, rising senior and aspiring journalist Lettie-Ann Miller said she also has been soaking up advice about networking. “Don’t be scared. Always make sure you go out there and get contacts because you never know what will happen,” she said.

The Student Corps team from the River Rouge High School, just south of downtown, landscaped around a viaduct that cars pass through to reach their school. The city cleared the weeds, and the student crew then laid plastic and planted 200 boxwoods to transform the space. Other projects chosen by the team include food distribution at a local community center and mentoring incoming freshmen in a high school orientation program.

Retiree Lew Eads is volunteering because he remembers adults in his life who encouraged him as a young person. “They showed me my potential, that’s why I’m here,” said the 70-year-old who worked as a GM advertising manager. “I tell the kids, ‘We’re here for you.’ I give them hugs and tell them we love them.”

No decision has been made yet about whether the program will continue next year, but Mr. DiGiovanni would like to see other Detroit businesses join the initiative. “Imagine a Student Corps of not 110 kids, but 3,000 kids,” he said.

Sandy Baruah, the president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said GM has been instrumental in supporting education reform, and this program was a natural next step. “It really demonstrates the importance that the business community is placing on education achievement,” he said.

Common Interests

Programs such as the GM Student Corps can reduce the perceived gap between business interests and community interests, Mr. Baruah suggests. “When people understand each other better, we find we have more in common than we have not in common.”

After the summer, Mr. DiGiovanni said he anticipates many of the retirees and students will stay in touch.

Seventeen-year-old Gregory Thomas, a 4.0 student who wants to be an engineer, says he hopes the experience will help his future job prospects. “If later in life I want to try to work for GM, I might get tips from them,” he said.

Volunteer Tom Parkhill, 69, plans to give students on his Cody team his business card at the end of the program. “They have expectations. Our job is to do what we can to make those expectations happen,” he said. “You need door openers and people who can help.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Internship Pairs Detroit Students With GM Retirees


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