Several minutes prior to Principal Nate Rouse's opening remarks at the15th annual Black Professionals Day at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Drew Swope, a junior well dressed in a tan vest, dress pants and polished shoes, was saying he knows he wants to work in the hospitality services field some day.
But, today he has his sights on learning more about what it means to be a special agent of the Secret Service like the one present, one of 15 professionals on tap to speak to students at the school last Friday.
"At first I always thought I wanted to be in the Army, but now I know that there are so many other possibilities for me out there," Swopes said. "I'm sure that I will never be president, but who knows what I can be."
Ambria Jones, an OPRF senior, was on deck to connect with a Science, Technology Environmental Studies (STEM) pro, to pick the volunteer presenter's brain about absolutely everything she had experienced so far in her profession.
Planning to study environmental science at Michigan State University in the fall, Jones says she is setting her bar high, and thinking about working for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Beech, a senior, signed up for his school's annual Black History Month celebratory event with the aim of finding out about what different jobs are out there for someone such as himself, a person interested in creative writing.
"I think this is a real opportunity to learn what these African American people have to offer," says Beech.
He's enjoying connecting with other African American peers in the library, who at last count numbered about 140, every one of them checking their schedule to see what speaker they would take in next.
"We have an achievement gap, and it is well known in our community, and we talk about it all the time," says Principal Rouse. "So, as many times as we can, when we, as a school, are able to have a conversation with our students about how important their education is, and have them meet with adult professionals in a setting such as this one, hearing about the road that these professionals traveled, it provides these African American students with a good in-school experience, motivation… and a little bit of an extra push into a successful future. This is an annual tradition for us here, and it is very gracious for our board, and the professional community at large, to allow us to do something for these kids at this magnitude."
In his remarks to students, Rouse pointed out that he is the first African American principal at a school which has been open since the 1870s.
Preparing for the future
To inspire African American students at OPRF to strive for excellence and success, Rouse says it is important to give them access to the real-life success stories of working professionals who look and sound like them. This he says will enable the young men and women of color to identify with the journeys taken by these mentoring volunteers who in their careers have overcome tremendous challenges to achieve success.
Represented, in 45 minute break out sessions, were individuals in the fields of engineering, marketing, human resources, medicine and other disciplines.
With her experiences of doing this last year still fresh, Marlo Gaal, 44, corporate human resources director for Hyatt Hotels, reprised her appearance, offering the students tips and advice she has learned on-the-job as she has navigated the multi-cultural and global world that is business nowadays.
"In my role at Hyatt, we look at some of the [social media] vehicles in making assessments. And pretty much make judgments about the kind of people we want representing our brand, our company," she said during a break. "So, how you conduct yourself, online and off line needs to align, because one is not mutually exclusive of another. And, it all matters. I think that is hugely difficult today."
Brooke Wages, 23, is a newly hired facilities engineer for U.S. Pipeline logistics at British Petroleum, North America. It was her intent to help the students navigate a world she still remembers fondly, high school and college.
Wages told the students what engineering is, what college coursework they should focus on to become one, and, of course, how to craft a competitive application to an engineering school that will gain them entrance to college, and launch their career.
"Something that my father always told me is that if you want to roll with the big dogs, you have to pee in the high grass," says Wages, who in college was one of the few females studying mechanical engineering and the only one of African American heritage in that department. "You need to realize that yeah, sometimes it is going to be tough, but this is what I chose to do, and it is what I am going to do … and this is what I am capable of and it won't always be easy."
Meanwhile, Swopes sat mesmerized in a packed room with about 20 other "men-in-black" wannabes…the Secret Service agents of tomorrow, perhaps?
"He talked about their role, not only with guarding the president, but outside that with their investigations, and what they do to not only protect the people in the White House, but also protect the American people from counterfeiters, identity thieves, and things of that nature," says Swopes. A seminal moment for him came when he and his family headed to Washington, D.C. in 2008 to attended President Barack Obama's first inauguration. "After hearing the special agent speak, I really do think I want to be a Secret Service agent now. It grabbed me, captivated me, and it is something that I really want to do."