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TeenWork students help MIT and their own career prospects

MIT and TeenWork, a program of Cambridge-based Just a Start, are partners in a win-win situation.

TeenWork was established in 1983 to mobilize private businesses to expand job opportunities for Cambridge youth. The program's leaders strive to place high school-age youths in job settings to which they have not traditionally had access. MIT has participated in TeenWork since 1993.

Susan Mills, the TeenWork coordinator for Just-A-Start since 1993, recruits students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School for the after-school and summer work program.

"I'm delighted to say TeenWork is my baby," said Ms. Mills. "It's so positive. It's easy to run."

TeenWork, she explained, is a competitive program, and students have to be motivated to join. They must show a report card (an average of C+ or higher is required) and provide two recommendations from teachers as well as from their guidance counselor. Next comes a six-hour job readiness workshop. Program staff get to know each student before a screening and job-matching process gets underway.

"We want them to understand work expectations, and those can come as a big culture shock," Ms. Mills said. "We have to explain that the thing they're most proud of -- those $100 sneakers, the $80 jeans or gold jewelry -- is actually inappropriate for a job interview. We have to say, 'Get rid of the lip ring.'"

TeenWorker Markland Anderson, 17, wears several earrings; he recalled with a smile that he "had to ask permission" from supervisor Pat Mellman, coordinator for Clinical Support Services in the MIT Medical Department, to wear them on the job. That was back in October 1996.

An interview with Ms. Mellman, Mr. Anderson and two other TeenWorkers, Joey Paris, 16, and Kiki Balkys-Sizard, 19, revealed a clear bond of mutual respect and affection among the students and their supervisor. All three workers said they'd like to keep working at MIT. Mr. Paris and Mr. Anderson, who will both be seniors at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, will continue to balance a full school workload with 10 hours of work each week at MIT.

Ms. Balkys-Sizard is actually no longer a TeenWorker -- as of last month, she is a full-time, permanent MIT employee. Her advice to newcomers to the program, both students and employers: "Don't assume anyone knows what you're thinking -- either way. What seems like common sense to you may be completely new to someone with a different background or different training."

As a veteran of TeenWork at MIT, Ms. Balkys-Sizard added, "Now I understand -- everything is connected around here. There are bosses for bosses and people above them. You have to be clear who you're reporting to."

Asked about important skills they had learned, Mr. Markland, Mr. Paris and Ms. Balkys-Sizard cited getting along with different types of people, using various office machines and tolerating repetitive tasks.

Generally, Ms. Mills asserted, "kids want to work. And these kids have already proven themselves by signing up for the program. It takes guts to do this. Many of these students are the first in their family to hold a job."

However, TeenWork students have also included the children of high-achieving families. "Our population runs the gamut. We've had two of Governor Weld's daughters participate, too," Ms. Mills said.

Once hired, students receive ongoing support through regular contact with TeenWork staff. During the summer, program staff make regular on-site visits and maintain contact with job supervisors to help with communication and evaluations. Most jobs at MIT are office support and "runner" jobs, said Ms. Mills.

Supervising TeenWork students, say MIT participants, has been a valuable experience. Ms. Mellman has been consistently "delighted that TeenWork is there, and very pleased with the performance of all the students I've supervised. The kids are hard-working and the TeenWork office is both supportive and well-organized."

Alison Salisbury, administative officer in the Department of Political Science, is now in her third summer with the program. "It's been very positive -- a learning experience for both my TeenWorker and for me and my staff. We've grown together."

Ms. Salisbury shared Ms. Mills' enthusiasm for watching a young person grow with the job. "My TeenWorker was very young and inexperienced when she came here. She has learned a lot about office and clerical duties."

To fellow MIT personnel considering TeenWork participation, Ms. Salisbury advised, "They are eager to learn, usually bright, and young. You have to be very thorough in your training, and you must keep your expectations realistic about what your TeenWorker is able to do." She also alerted members of a time-pressed community that "this is a very rewarding experience, but one that requires a lot of supervision and understanding."


The program can be successful even for students who don't stay with the Institute. Priscilla Whoolary, research analyst in Corporate Development, was impressed that a student was able to choose not to keep her MIT job.

"We reached a mutual agreement with our student that she did not have enough time to give us, and she needed to focus on her studies. I thought that this was very mature," said Ms. Whoolery.

Doreen Charbonneau, senior secretary in Environmental Medical Services, has worked with TeenWorkers for several years. "Overall, I found it a very positive experience. The students in this program are top of their class, looking for practical experience that will enable them to do something while they work their way through college," she said.

Advising future adult participants in the TeenWorks program, Ms. Charbonneau said, "Try to remember they are here to learn, and try to give them some tasks that will stretch their abilities a bit. I always try to make sure they learn a lot about computers while they are with me. MIT is a very technical place and many of these students have only a little practical computer experience."

"The students are prepared by this program on what is acceptable office behavior," she said. "They are punctual, and they call if they are going to be late. They quickly pick up new tasks and become a great asset to the office. I find it very refreshing to work with these teens. This program has shown me teenagers who are intelligent and ambitious, working hard to go to college and contribute to society."

Members of the MIT community who are interested in hiring a TeenWorker for the summer may contact Kenneth Wolff in the Personnel Office at x3-4278.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 13, 1997.

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