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Employers Tap First-Gen Students as 'Rising Stars' Through University of St. Thomas Internship Program

Published Jun 13, 2022 by Susan Moore

University of St. Thomas student stands within Houston Methodists' MITIE (sm) Center, where he has been an intern.

“We don’t look at [Peter Nguyen] as a student worker – he’s a worker here." - Homer Quintana, MITIE (SM) Program Project Manager Photo used by permission.

In his scrubs, sneakers and surgical mask, Peter Nguyen looks a lot like other staff of the Houston Methodist Research Institute for Technology, Innovation & Education (MITIE℠), in the Texas Medical Center, dedicated to the use of simulation in education, training and research for health care related procedures and technologies. Nguyen has helped set up labs for procedures and sterilized equipment, has practiced suturing and used MITIE℠’s da Vinci surgical system robotic arm, and has shadowed a nuclear pharmacist and participated in trials of cutting-edge technology.

Nguyen is a 19-year-old second-year nursing student at the University of St. Thomas working at MITIE℠ through the school’s Rising Stars Internship Program. “We don’t look at him as a student worker – he’s a worker here,” said Homer Quintana, program project manager for the Center for Rapid Device Translation at Houston Methodist, and Nguyen’s supervisor.

“On my first day, I got to use VR,” Nguyen said. “With me being a nursing major and getting to learn sutures – it’s really awesome. I’m 19 years old and I get to do all these things.”

The University of St. Thomas’ Rising Stars Internship program helps first-generation college students pursue higher education while gaining relevant work experience related to their college majors. Participating students receive a minimum of $20,000 toward their total tuition costs through scholarships, financial aid, and an $8,000 annual payment from partner employers. This means they can gain a life-changing college education for a minimal out-of-pocket cost. In exchange, students spend eight to 10 hours each week working with their partner employers.

First-generation college students are more likely to face greater hurdles in finding good employment than classmates with better career guidance and professional connections, according to the Pew Research Center. And, one year after graduation, they are more likely to be underemployed when compared with peer graduates whose parents competed college, data from the Center for First-generation Student Success show.

The Rising Stars program launched in 2019 with five students and four corporate partners. By the 2022 fall semester, it will have grown to about 185 students—many from local districts and high schools including Fort Bend ISD, Houston ISD and Klein ISD, Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School, KIPP Texas—Houston and YES Prep—and its first class of seniors will graduate next year. Its corporate and nonprofit partners now number around 50, spread across the banking, energy, and medical industries, among others. In the fall of 2020, program students represented about 10 percent of the freshman class with roughly one quarter of the students on the school’s Dean’s List.

"At the heart of UST is the imperative to serve, especially those with limited access to educational excellence," said Dr. Richard Ludwick, president of UST. "With this in mind, we launched the Rising Stars Internship Program to propel scholarship-dependent students into the professional environment as future contenders for top positions."

The University takes particular care to match interns with employers based on the students’ areas of study so that they may gain relevant work experience and understand the intricacies and opportunities within a specific industry. The Rising Stars program also provides its employer partners with motivated student workers, who could potentially become full-time employees.

Quintana has created opportunities to help expose Nguyen to the different perspectives and diverse settings within a research clinic. Quintana says the Texas Medical Center needs clinical research nurses and organized for Nguyen to “job shadow” one, which Nguyen says helped him recognize his interests. Nguyen says his experience at MITIE℠ has shown him practical applications and given him a deeper understanding of concepts and anatomy that he’s learned about in school. He became interested in medical equipment and instruments by preparing labs for, and cleaning up after, procedures.

“It might seem like an intern task, but I get to learn about instruments while putting them away,” he said. Nguyen is currently leaning toward becoming an operating room nurse or a surgical nurse practitioner but is excited to experience more nursing avenues.

Practical, career-connected work is only part of the internship experience. Mentoring is the other.

Taking on an intern and being a mentor is “one of the most meaningful things you can do with your life,” said Schuyler Tilney, chairman of energy services and equipment for Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., and host of a Rising Stars intern. Tilney has, over the course of several years, mentored numerous high school and first-generation college student interns and has taken the time to connect his current and former interns with one another; they have begun building supportive, family-like relationships with each other, he said. He would urge employers to take the time to get involved in the lives of their interns, or to make sure someone on the team does.

Tilney spent the 2020-2021 school year meeting one-on-one with his Rising Stars intern and teaching her about the oil and gas business and corporate finance and investment banking, which tied into her accounting coursework. Tilney turned his attention this school year toward teaching her about the business world and helping her build life skills and career skills including how to write a good resume and search for jobs online.

Matt Braly, regional president and executive vice president of Third Coast Bank in Houston, and his team have helped his Rising Stars intern understand the banking world along with the complexities of personal finance and real estate investment from the banking perspective with real-life applications. Braly has also spoken with his intern, a freshman, about life, the college experience and its challenges – including how they fit together. For a first-generation college student without family to offer advice, an internship provides first-hand understanding of the importance of college education and life success. Braly has also recognized a positive change in the student’s attitude toward attending college, in general. Rising Stars interns, he said, are grateful, and eager to learn.

Nguyen agrees. “It’s wonderful that we’re all growing and part of this adult experience while in school. People who don’t have the Rising Stars program don’t have these types of internship experiences. We’re lucky to have these types of opportunities and to work for our tuition as well,” he said.

To Quintana, internships provide employers with young workers who can help with tasks while giving seasoned employees an opportunity to mentor and get a new generation excited about their businesses and industries. Interns such as Nguyen are viewed as potential hires upon their graduation, he said, as they’ve had a chance to learn a business and a company’s identity and values.

“I want to make sure Peter understands the worth of what he’s doing, and of himself,” Quintana said. “We have a vested interest in him succeeding.”


Related: Professional Networking Platform Gives First-Gen College Students ‘Career Spring’

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