Internship program offers minorities their first steps into corporate America

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Working a summer internship in the pharmacy of a CVS is just a small step toward Mychael Thompson's goal of being a jet-setting international businessman. But he's learning things about humanity and responsibility that go beyond the limits of any classroom lecture.

"There are people who can't live without these pills," said Mr. Thompson, who graduated from Winchester Thurston School and is now a rising sophomore at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. "Their lives are at stake. It means a lot to me to be the one helping out with people's health care and well-being."

Mr. Thompson, 19, is one of about a dozen African-American college students who took advantage of career internship opportunities this summer provided by FAME, the Fund for the Advancement of Minorities Through Education.

These students have taken a giant leap away from the violence and despair of their old neighborhoods to tree-lined college campuses around the nation, and are now taking their first steps into corporate America.

"I wanted to do an internship to get a more in-depth exposure to the corporate workplace and culture," said Daniel Joyner, a native of Stanton Heights who is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in business and Japanese.

Mr. Joyner, 21, found an internship at PNC Financial Services Group, working in the investor relations department Downtown.

"PNC's culture is very welcoming to new employees and interns," he said. "They have really treated me like a real employee. I've been researching historical stock prices and working on charts that they'll be using for investor presentations.

"It makes me feel good to do work that is providing some value to them."

The FAME program aims to increase the number of African-Americans in leadership positions in the Pittsburgh region by giving them a reason to launch their careers here when they graduate.

"These internships are more than just a way to spend the summer," said Robert Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments. "They make the person broader and a much more attractive candidate for employment.

"The ties FAME creates in this region increases immeasurably the likelihood that bright African-Americans will stay in the area."

The Heinz Endowments has contributed $1 million of the $8 million FAME has in its endowment. FAME's fund-raising goal is to reach $10 million.

Constance Horton, executive director of FAME, said the organization supports the overall education of underprivileged black students in many ways, including scholarships for them to attend private schools such as Winchester Thurston, The Ellis School, Sewickley Academy, St. Edmunds and Shady Side Academy.

"We want to educate young people and change corporate diversity in Pittsburgh," Ms. Horton said.

This summer, FAME scholars and alumni are interning at UPMC, PNC, WQED, the Heinz Endowments, Allegheny County Law Department, the New Pittsburgh Courier and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

"There's a lack of understanding of how deep the culture of the inner-city area goes," said Doug Allen, who grew up in Homewood and will start this fall at Columbia Law School. "In these neighborhoods there's a sense of hopelessness due to limited means."

Mr. Allen did not know any African-American professionals who could act as role models or give him advice. While his family was always supportive, none of them went to college or could identify with the challenges he faced.

Still, he was driven to succeed, and FAME helped him do so as he made many sacrifices along the way, including waking up at 5:30 a.m. every day to catch two city buses to Sewickley Academy.

"Sewickley opened my mind to another world," he said. "I've never seen wealth like that or such determination and focus on academics."

Davie Huddleston, PNC's director of strategic college recruiting, is a big believer in the value of internships.

"An internship puts a theory in practice," Mr. Huddleston said. "It also gives you an understanding of whether a job is where you want to start your career and allows you to experiment with what you want to do."

Many of the FAME interns are working in positions that have allowed them to make a difference in the community.

Louis Finley, who grew up in Stanton Heights and is a sophomore at Drexel University, played a role in four local agencies receiving $30,000 last year based on a presentation he and other interns at the Heinz Endowments made to the board of directors.

This summer, FAME paid Mr. Finley a stipend to work at WQED on the "Black Horizons 40th Anniversary."

Indea Herndon, 22, from the Hill District, recently graduated from Chatham University and now is an intern at WQED FM where she does interviews and edits programs.

"There are stereotypes of running to make coffee. But I've learned so much," she said. "FAME pointed me in the right direction and let me know I had the skills to succeed. Without FAME I wouldn't have known about this and wouldn't have had the opportunity."

Kimberly Myers, a parent in McKeesport, said if her 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter had not been accepted to the FAME program to attend Sewickley Academy she would have moved to the New York suburbs to find them a better education.

An older son of hers graduated from the public school system in Pittsburgh and his experience was so poor that she couldn't bear her younger children having the same experience.

"I know that their education is going to be top-notch," she said of her children enrolled at Sewickley Academy. "Education is the separator in terms of the job market and how highly skilled you are.

"We are educating them to be future leaders. The possibilities are endless."

Alexa Chu can be reached at 412-263-1889 or . Tim Grant can be reached at or 412-263-1591.


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