Our Journey Together: Cohort III and Me

Judy and Raquel. jpgHere’s why Cohort III will always hold a special place in my heart. We started together. I had just graduated college and this was my first year as an academic counselor at Rainier Scholars; they were sophomores in high school. And now they are college graduates. How time flies!

Out of all the cohorts, Cohort III helped me grow the most. To them, I was yet another person to meet with on a monthly basis. I quickly realized to do my job effectively, it was essential to build a relationship with them. What I didn’t initially understand is what a gift this would be to me. Throughout the past six years they have shared so much of their life stories with me. That takes a lot of trust, which is very humbling. This work has taught me that what I value most are the relationships and rapport I’ve built with my students

This is a cohort that is definitely not afraid to go out of their comfort zone. Many of them have moved away from home to attend college, two have taken gap years and several have traveled to countries including Cameroon, France, Spain and South America. When I reflect back on my conversations with Cohort III, the general theme has been to define what success and happiness mean to you, and let that be your guide for how to proceed in life.

December dinner

Over the years, members of the cohort have been separated, attending different high schools and colleges. Despite the distance, the group continues to be strongly connected. During many of our summer events and workshops I see how members of Cohort III take advantage of school breaks to see each other. After one of our mandatory summer workshops, a big group made plans to have dinner later to catch up. As they have gotten older, they have become more invested in the program.  As graduates, they will all pursue separate endeavors, but the experience of being a Rainier Scholar is what will continue to bind them all together.



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Rainier Scholars in the South: A Visit to Remember

The transition to college life can be a significant adjustment for many of our scholars.  The RS college support team pledges to visit every freshman on their college campus during the first year of school. I had the opportunity to visit three of our Cohort VI Scholars in Atlanta and Dallas in early March. Syade Shields at Morehouse College, Adam Iyob at Emory University and Feaven Berhe at Southern Methodist University were all on my travel itinerary. While each of them have had ups and downs adapting to their new environments like most freshmen, I can honestly say that they are thriving and making the most of opportunities presented.

My first visit was with Syade at MorehousSyade Shields Morehouse sign croppede. After our campus tour of the bustling campuses (Morris Brown, Spellman and Clark are all within walking distance,) Syade took me to a hole in the wall soul food restaurant called Busy Bee Café that had the best fried  chicken I’ve had in my life. (You know it’s the truth when Chef Emeril Lagasse’s picture is on the wall along with countless other celebrities.) Syade feels like University Prep more than prepared him for college academics, and has been able to face challenges in his coursework with confidence. He’s quite the social butterfly, no surprise here for those that know Syade. Through personal networking, he landed an internship at a local music promotion company, and has been helping book shows in Atlanta for some big players in the hip-hop world.

Adam Iyob at Emory croppedI then left to visit Adam at Emory. I almost didn’t recognize him as he approached me in his tie and sweater with shades on. He’s really enjoying his courses for the most part, and has been exploring much of what the Emory student body and community has to offer as well as the immediate surroundings of the campus. Adam just started playing Lacrosse and is getting some playing time despite being a freshman. He has a job working in campus technology department and also went through training to become part of a campus emergency response team (for campus wide incidents). Adam was extremely thoughtful, no matter whether reflecting on his own experiences or just deeply analyzing the last movie he saw.

Feaven Berhe SMU sign cropped

Feaven was my last visit, though I barely made it into Dallas. A blizzard almost prevented the plane from landing, and Dallas is by no means ready to deal with snow. Despite this I managed to get to Southern Methodist University through the ice and slush. Feaven is always a pleasure to be around with her sense of humor and general good nature. She is happy at SMU as a whole, and stays very busy through the Physician-Scientist Training Program (PSTP) that she’s been a part of since middle school. She spends a lot of her weekends attending events and hosting younger students on campus that are part of the PSTP program, and also getting to know her other peers. Feaven will be doing medical research this summer in Vancouver, BC, topic yet to be determined.”

Adjusting to a new settings can be challenging, especially when students are faced with doing this thousands of miles away from home. Campus visits are so important in creating tangible support at a stage when students might feel disconnected from Seattle and the RS community. Through my meetings with individual students I reflected on some common themes that emerged – self-exploration through pushing personal boundaries, finding new communities of support, and laying the foundations for pathways beyond college.  I am reminded that ALL of these characteristics embody what it truly means to be a Rainier Scholar.

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The Beautiful Game

George Alvarado-Salinas came late to “the beautiful game”. He didn’t fall in love with soccer until the 8th grade when his parents took him to Mexico. George returned from the trip a changed person, admitting he had become “soccer crazed” insisting on wearing indoor soccer shoes and jerseys everywhere he went. While he developed his skills into being a good field player, his passion for the game came alive when juggling and doing tricks with a soccer ball. Known for being a bit reserved in a crowd, George found satisfaction in this solitary pursuit of excellence.George and Chris WOZA Soccer

While George was perfecting his juggling routines and navigating the journey out of middle school and into high school as a Rainier Scholar, Chris Kaimmer, a Yale University graduate from Ballard High School was following his love of the game to soccer pitches around the world. As a volunteer with Grassroot Soccer, a sports-based non-profit supporting HIV/AIDS initiatives in Africa, Chris saw how soccer connects people and helps save lives. In 2013, inspired by the time he spent with Sheldon Hughes, the director of Mtuba Football Academy in South Africa, and other inspiring sports programs like it, he founded a soccer-focused travel company, Woza Soccer, as a way to share the experience with teens in America.

The word “Woza” translates to “Come” in Zulu. Players use it to plead for the ball from teammates (Woza! WOZA!) or to express excitement or disappointment on the field. It is an ever-present yet unmistakable term that epitomizes the passion Chris wants to instill in players and in this transformative cross-cultural program.

For his part, George was introduced to Woza through the program’s efforts to identify scholarship candidates and a partnership created through Chris’ meeting with Sarah Smith, Executive Director of Rainier Scholars. With a lifelong passion for sports and also a lover of the beautiful game, Ms. Smith saw Woza as yet another opportunity to expand the view of scholars, enriching a students’ perspective of the world and how one can make a difference.

Upon learning of the chance to travel and play soccer, George and his parents jumped at this unique opportunity. The trip did not, however, begin auspiciously.
With a mind-numbing 16-hour flight and thirteen other kids from around the country he didn’t know, George admitted, “It was pretty weird. All I wanted to do was sit by myself and read.” But eventually, soccer began to work its magic. As Chris observed, “It was this amazing transformation from a kid alone in a corner of the airport hiding behind sunglasses and reading philosophy who, after a few days and a few touches on a soccer ball, became a beloved part of the group.” George agrees saying, “Soccer made the difference. You’re together with teammates – sharing the experience.”

Making a difference through soccer. That is Woza. When asked what he remembers most about the trip, George recalls, “Soccer. Playing soccer ALL the time.” Whether it was with the Zulu boys on a home-made soccer field, in a market square in Cape Town while waiting for the ferry to Robben Island, outdoors at Sheldon’s house around a stewing pot of Potjiekos – a local dinner favorite – or leading a clinic for HIV-positive local youth, a soccer ball was always present. It was a new and powerful experience. Host families of modest means welcomed them into their homes, sharing a contagious sense of happiness. Their ability to be grateful for what they had while at the same time having big dreams for the future was eye opening to George.

So it was, some moGeorge watching soccernths later, back in Seattle, when Chris asked him if he wanted to go on another trip, George’s face lit up immediately. It was as if his heart was saying, “woza, woza — Woza!” Yes. Yes, I’m open – pass me the ball!

George is a junior at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (SAAS) and a member of Cohort VIII. For more information on Woza Soccer contact Chris Kaimmer via email.

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Prevent First-Generation College Dropouts with a Gap Year

First-generation college students have far lower graduation rates than more privileged students. To solve this problem, we must reframe the existing motivations for higher Law, Winsoneducation for underserved students. Purpose, direction, and the cultivation of identity must take the front seat, providing the intrinsic motivation that drives them to academic success. These priorities stand in stark contrast to the common message used to motivate first-generation college students — that a college degree will result in higher paying jobs. Particularly in higher education, encouraging first-generation students to follow their interests and passions will lead to richer academic engagement, improved college graduation rates, and more fulfilling careers. Experience and studies suggest that gap year programming may be a key component of this strategy to improve outcomes for first-generation college students in higher education.

A Counter Intuitive Solution to the College Dropout Crisis

Today, 43% of first-generation and low-income students are not graduating from college within six years. In my conversations with directors at community-based organizations (CBOs), it became clear that many factors create obstacles for underserved students. These factors include not having people at home who understand the college experience, needing to work in order to pay for school, and not feeling a sense of belonging on campus. Many organizations work admirably and tirelessly to support students up to and throughout college. Their efforts are critical; supporting students to create better lives for themselves and their families. However, what is seldom mentioned is the need for students to have a sense of purpose and direction for their learning, rooted in their own passions and values.

It’s the desire to learn about things that matter to them — not just earn a diploma — that allows students to persist in the classroom when faced with academic, personal, and family struggles. Without this intrinsic motivation, college can be difficult to endure. Paul Fields, Director of College Partnerships at College Track, says that students are cognizant of the costs of college and are less likely to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans if they don’t know what they want out of the experience. Encouraging students to enroll in college when they are unsure of the value of college is a recipe for failure. Without a sense of direction, students may be better off earning money for themselves and their family, rather than accumulating debt in college. Encouraging students to find their passions as a foundation for their purpose and direction is a necessary supplement to the work that college access organizations do to support students in accessing and unlocking the full value of higher education.

It is hopeful that many CBOs recognize that the deeper purpose of a college education is to enable students to cultivate purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in their lives. The challenge is to demonstrate to first-generation students that they, too, can pursue the fulfillment, social change, and creativity that has been for so long reserved for privileged students. If we do not reframe the purpose of education for these students, we risk the perpetuation of injustice and the dropout crisis.

One way to help students gain intrinsic motivation for college is through an intentional and purposeful gap year program. Thinking Beyond Borders’ impact assessment shows promising signs that their programming helps students develop a sense of purpose and direction for their college education. Giving students the room to critically engage with the world brings greater relevance to academics and helps uncover new interests. Nina Hoe, who wrote her dissertation about delayers and gap year students, posits that an intentional gap year has positive influence across the board, regardless of social identity and background. Furthermore, her research reveals that a gap year can also lead to higher GPAs and an enriched engagement with higher education, even when controlling for background. By helping students find a sense of purpose for their education beyond just a well-paying job, gap years create students who do better in college.

Making Gap Years Accessible to All

Despite growing buzz around gap years (the New York Times and Tuft’s 1+4 program), there’s a tremendous inequity in access to these experiences. It’s primarily those who can afford a gap year, have a supportive family, and belong to approving communities who take gap years. So why are those who stand to benefit the most from additional academic and emotional preparation before college – first-generation and underserved students – often discouraged from taking a gap year? And, how do we make gap years accessible to all?

I’ve been pursuing these questions for a couple of years now. What I’ve found so far is that students of color face three key barriers in participating in a gap year: lack of financial, parental, and social support. While I originally assumed that money was the main reason why first-generation, low-income, and traditionally underserved students didn’t take gap years, I found that the lack of parental and social support often prevented students from even considering a gap year, regardless of cost. I’ve also found that college access organizations often pushback against gap years for first-generation students. They express fear that students won’t return to college, that it’s an extra year that students are not making money, and that programs are too expensive. Fortunately, there are strong responses to those issues. Many programs offer financial aid and scholarships, and some like City Year and Americorps pay students to participate and award college funds. Perhaps most importantly, a gap year would help prevent college-bound students from dropping out and allow them to unlock greater value from higher education.

Some questions remain as I develop my understanding of gap years for first-generation college students. Since the number of first-generation students who take gap years is small, it is difficult to measure how gap years impact this group of students. Do gap years impact first-generation students differently than more privileged students? If so, how? And if organizations begin to bring in more students from diverse backgrounds, how might they support them and deliver those outcomes?

By encouraging first-generation students to find purpose and direction, we can provide a pathway that will lead to higher college graduation rates. An emphasis on developing purpose and direction will empower these students with intrinsic motivation for an education that engages their interests and values. Their reasons for attaining a college degree will go beyond just a paycheck, grounding them in a career that is meaningful and fulfilling. As a result, first-generation students will be more likely to persist through college.

This is a guest post by Winson Law, Cohort III scholar who is currently Junior at Middlebury College. Winson created opportunities with MiddCORE and Thinking Beyond Borders to research why and how to make gap years accessible to first-generation college students.

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Cultivating Rainier Scholars to be Self-Advocates and Risk Takers

(Rainier Scholar Jessica (L) and Angelica Johnson, her Academic Counselor)

I’m an Academic Counselor to a high school scholar named Jessica who is a junior at the Lakeside School. The photo of Jessica and me was taken during a one-on-one meeting we had in Bliss Hall when she shared with me that she was excited to have recently joined the Junior Varsity basketball team. In the past, Jessica has expressed an interest in playing a sport at Lakeside, but was intimidated to try it out because she feared that she was not competitive enough. Jessica continues to do well in her classes and would like to be even more challenged in her accelerated pre-calculus class. We discussed ways that she could engage with her math teacher to see if he could give her extra or more advanced work. Jessica is pushing herself to take more risks at Lakeside and believe in her ability to succeed. As her Academic Counselor, I have been working with Jessica to equip her with the skills and encouragement she needs to grow as a student.

Jessica is an active member of Lakeside Asian-Pacific Students (LAPS.) Asian-Pacific students make up one of the largest racial/ethnic groups on the Lakeside campus. This affinity club is organized by students and aims both to provide a supportive network as well as to raise general awareness about Asian-American identity and culture. In LAPS, Jessica wants to push to have more conversation about race and racism and engage more biracial students. I affirmed her desire to organize discussions around race is valid and suggested that she could also include mixed race identity in such discussions so that members will have a space to discuss things that speak to their lived experiences. I encouraged her to check out some movies/documentaries and articles that could be good conversation starters and offered my help in finding other resources.  I praised Jessica for wanting to push the envelope because this goes against the stereotype of Asian females being docile and conflict avoidant.

This is just one example of my work as an Academic Counselor in cultivating my students to be strong self-advocates and risk takers. In private school environments where there are few students of color, being a minority can be very triggering for our students on multiple levels. It is important in my work to affirm the talents/skills and narratives that my students bring to the table as well as encourage them to take full advantage of all the opportunities and resources at the tip of their fingers. In light of recent events in Ferguson and a push to continue to discuss topics of race, immigration, etc. on an institutional level, our students are in a unique position to serve as leaders at their schools in organizing discussions/dialogue on creating environments that celebrate difference and institutionalize practices of inclusivity that are willing to invest in the presence, safety, and success of students of color and their families. Jessica’s story is just one example of the amazing work our students are doing on campus, in the classroom and in their personal development.



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Diversity and Inclusion: Drawing lessons from TV’s “The Voice”….say whaaaat?

What do you get when you combine a roomful of advocates for diversity and inclusion in the work place, expert panelists in the field, and Rainier Scholars?  Magic in a bottle, that’s what:

  • “Great insights and wisdom based on four interesting and diverse careers.”
  • “Terrific seeing scholars giving back to our community.”
  • “So many thought provoking comments…”
  • “Makes me think more purposely about my own career and the impact I can make.”
  • “The type of event that people leave and tell their friends and co-workers about.”

On November 18th, pearls of wisdom rained down on guests gathered at Whitepages.com for Education Happy Hour, an annual Rainier Scholars event for the Greater Seattle business community.  Conversation kicked off with panelists drawing a clear distinction between diversity and inclusion – diversity being the presence of a wide range of individual perspectives, thoughts and expertise, and inclusion being something deeper, reflecting true representation and participation at every level of the organization.  As champions of this work, inclusive leaders must be unafraid of the hard, courageous conversations necessary to help folks grow, even when that involves critical feedback that is both difficult to hear and challenging to incorporate.RS_WhitePages_HR-CRP-1187

On a topic as weighty as this, the last thing I expected was to hear panelist James Thomas, Corporate Diversity Affairs Director at Nordstrom, referencing a reality TV show in his remarks. For those not well-versed in pop culture, (aka those not living with tweens, teens or twenty-somethings), The Voice is a team vocal competition, with four teams of artists selected and coached by famous singers, music producers and the like.

Now mind you, dressing like fashionista and No Doubt’s front woman Gwen Stefani or riffin’ like Pharrell about being “happy” in a business meeting is not likely to foster inclusiveness in Corporate America. Instead, James uses the popularity of the show to help people connect to these emergent topics as more companies become increasingly focused on inclusion strategies to drive business and innovation, while also boosting employee satisfaction and retention.

In particular, James cites the diverse range of judges, contestants and musical genres represented on The Voice.  He also notes that when making strategic decisions about building teams, captains across the board always consider what different skill or talent they can bring to the team’s mix, strengthening its caliber as a whole.

In the business world,  having a diverse and inclusive work environment not only leads to an infusion of new ideas and perspectives, it also helps organizations gain a better understanding of what products and services they’re missing in the markets they serve.  Being part of a diverse and inclusive work place is both empowering and enlightening, with a broad range of representation at the table contributing to the dialogue and decisions that impact business and promote economic growth.

RS_WhitePages_HR-FF-0939 cropped

I’m so proud to work at Rainier Scholars, where we help scholars access educational pathways that lead from the classroom to college and careers. At every point in the journey, we encourage our scholars to stand tall, stretch beyond their comfort zones and strive for excellence. When presented with the myriad opportunities that education brings, I’m fully confident that our scholars will use their “voice” to positively impact and inspire change in our professional work force, our community and our greater world.

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Sending Hometown Love


“As we enter the season of Thanksgiving, I am reminded of how thankful I am for Rainier Scholars and for generous supporters of Rainier Scholars, like yourselves. The program has profoundly changed my academic journey and given me more inspiration than they even know. Thank you for supporting Rainier Scholars and students like me! “

Connie, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015

I recently took a moment to thank those who participated in our 6th Annual College Care Package project. This effort, one which sends some hometown Seattle love to our scholars on campuses all over the country, has become a much-beloved part of the annual cycle in Danathe College Support phase of the program. It is not at all uncommon for students to send pictures capturing their excitement at receiving such a lovely gift, and it serves as an important reminder as to the large community and network of support rooting for each of our scholars wherever they may be. I know I speak for our Director of College Support, Jolenta Coleman-Bush and her entire team when I say that this effort is important and we could not send the over 100 packages we did this year without our community’s support.

In a sign of the evolution of our program and the passage of time, I want to give a special shout out to those Rainier Scholars Cohort I and II college graduates/alums who turned back around this year and participated as senders of care packages. Our younger scholars in college were floored to learn that alums were doing this with their own time and on their own dime, and thus, were even more touched by the experience. That is exactly the type of community leadership development which we believe is at the heart of the Rainier Scholars program.

Denzel and Kevin

We thank the community members who have participated in this program for many years now for their continuing commitment and modeling of community engagement and leadership for the generations which follow. Across campuses in every section of our country, there are scholars who are grateful for their support.

Want to be a part of our network of support for scholars? Find ways you can get involved


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Pipeline to Progress: Creating a Diverse & Inclusive Workplace

RS_Whitepages-0947 5 x 7

While college graduation for low-income students of color is at the core of our mission, in the big picture, our vision is for our students to grow into adulthood and become leaders in all aspects of their lives. From corporate to nonprofit to government arenas, and all sorts of boardrooms in between, our hope is that many generations of Rainier Scholars will enhance and enrich this community with their commitment, intelligence and talents, all of which will lead to greater diversity and inclusion in our civic life.

With this in mind, our 3rd annual Education Happy Hour focused on diversity and inclusion and featured an outstanding group of panelists, each with lifelong commitment to the work of creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces. By sharing wisdom and insight, they stimulated a thought-provoking discussion that both the business leaders and Rainier Scholars’ community members in attendance felt was inspiring and worthwhile.


What struck me most was the panel’s distinction of the significant difference between diversity and inclusion: diversity being the presence of a wide range of folks working within an organization, but inclusion being something deeper and reflecting true participation and a sense of voice at every level of the organization, line-staff to leaders. They defined inclusive leaders as candid, ethical, humble, authentic and effective – words which really resonated for me. They also stressed that inclusive leaders are unafraid of the hard, courageous conversations necessary to help the folks they manage grow, even when that involves difficult feedback and constructive criticism. They emphasized the importance of keeping both the internal pipeline of talent growing by promoting from within and the external pipelines healthy and vibrant to ensure a truly diverse and inclusive organization. It is important to Rainier Scholars to engage others in the community who share this vision as we work together to bring it to fruition, and we were honored to be among colleagues on the journey at our 3rd Annual Education Happy Hour.

Find out more about the event, read the panelists’ bios and a summary of the discussion.

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Going Back and Moving Forward

June 25, 2014 I left the United States to explore my identity in Ghana,West Africa. The trip was a program through the University of Washington Social Work program and focused on Sankofa which means “to go back and get it” to bring life from receiving knowledge on your Viche head and shouldersroots. In Ghana I realized how much I as an African American am not just a result of African culture, but slavery. While there, we visited Cape Coast Castle which was a holding place for slaves where we walked and sat inside different slave dungeons. I’ll never forget seeing old carvings in the wall and thinking they could have easily been my ancestors. We walked through the “Door of No Return” which was the door the slaves were forced from the castle to the ship.  It was extremely empowering to walk back through the door, which was later titled “Door of Return”.

Another big part of the trip involved volunteering within the community. I chose to volunteer at a charity school and orphanage where I taught a class of 5th graders. While there, I mostly taught English grammar, but on a few occasions I led discussions and activities on goals and dreams and ways to achieve them. By the end of the trip, those were my kids!

I learned two valuable lessons in Ghana. One was the importance of ethnicity, as an African American my history is extremely unique in both the best and worst ways. The people in Ghana would continuously say to myself and others “welcome home” and I knew I had fulfilled my ancestors’ dreams, I had returned home.

Since being back home in America I realize even more how much of my culture isn’t represented here, not just in America, but specifically Seattle, Washington. I realize that there really is no reflection of myself and it has made me want to move to the south, so that I can at least be surrounded by other brown people. I’ve also realized just how isolated and individualized we are here in the U.S. and it makes me sad. While in Ghana everyone speaks to each other and is friendly, but being in the US where people sit right next to each other on buses and never bother to even say hi has made me miss the unity in Ghana. I realize that if people were more united here, like they are in Ghana, fewer people would struggle, (or at least struggle alone.) My neighbor’s struggle would be my struggle and we would be more inclined to find a solution together.

The second thing I leaViche in Ghanarned is that I am extremely privileged to live the way I do in America and to be aware of my westernized way of thinking whenever judging someone. Since being back from Ghana, I am actually more inspired to travel, because I realize that Seattle is not a place I want to stay forever. I am more aware of all the things I take for granted, like healthy, clean water that is accessible everywhere. I am more aware of all the things I don’t need like a TV in every room or the latest cell phone. I am more aware of just how saddening this capitalist society we live in really is. The most important change however is feeling a connection to my ethnicity and my culture in my homeland; Africa.

Viche Thomas is senior at University of Washington.

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Kudos for Rainier Scholars’ College Interns

The employers of our most recent group of college interns gave consistently positive feedback on working with our scholars, 100% of survey respondents indicating they would hire a Rainier Scholar again! They were recognized for their ability to adapt and thrive in structured as well as unstructured environments. Here are some quotes from workplace supervisors about the strong work-ethic, problem-solving ability and initiative of this group of future leaders.


“Alan is exactly what we are looking for in our future talent pipeline. He learns quickly, shows initiative and works well with teams.”


Brighton Jones:
“Bisrat made a big contribution to our culture. He genuinely wanted to be a part of not only our business but our office. His enthusiasm is contagious.”

CascadiaConsulting-StephanieShirley1Cascadia Consulting Group:
“Shirley was great, (with a) high quality of work, enthusiasm and energy, positive and willingness to learn!”


Girls Who Code:GirlsWhoCode-CasiSam2
“Sam was well qualified to handle these responsibilities with little need for constant monitoring or training, and the summer could not have been as successful for our organization as it was without her help.”

Copy of Skanska-ChipLewamJeanne1

Skanska Construction U.S.A:
“Lewam is an intelligent, fast learner who took on any task, no matter how small, with dedication….by the time she left she was doing the work of an entry level Assistant PA.”

University of Washington, Department of Chemistry:
“Jasmine is an independent worker that takes initiative in her projects. She took our lab into new directions by adding a new material for our lab to study and also a new technique for our lab to use to characterize solar cell materials.”

“Diana was an immense help to our data team as they try to move forward into the international market!”

Read more about our internship program and find out how you can get involved!

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