Local teens Gabriela De Santiago (left) and Taylor Girschek listen to a presentation during the village of Oak Park's youth skills initiative workshop held July 28 at the Oak Park Public Library. F. AMANDA TUGADE/Staff Reporter

When Gabriela De Santiago composed her first resume, she used a template she found online and plugged her information into three categories: experience, activities and references. But a free week-long workshop aiming to help teens find and land the right job last month gave De Santiago new tips to improve it. 

“My resume is definitely a lot more professional. It looks a lot neater like an older person wrote it,” said De Santiago, 16, an incoming junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School. 

De Santiago said she knew a good resume leads to the next step of the hiring process – the interview – and wanted to know how to better describe previous work experiences and roles in extracurricular activities. She also wanted to learn how to ask potential employers about salary, hours and their expectations during that interview. 

Lisa-Marie Johnson, instructor of the annual youth skills initiative workshop, said teens entering the workforce need to understand one thing: They have what it takes to get the job. 

“There are so many skills – transferable skills – you have that, just because you don’t get compensated by an employer, doesn’t mean they’re not marketable,” Johnson said, adding her main goal is for De Santiago and other workshop participants to realize they are valuable even as high-schoolers.  

Since 2004, the village of Oak Park’s Community Relations Department has held the youth skills initiative workshop, an extension of the village’s youth job fairs and an answer to local parents who asked officials to provide more resources for teens in Oak Park and surrounding areas, said Cedric Melton, director of Community Relations. 

Johnson said she joined this effort over a decade ago, first as a panelist and later as a teacher leading the workshop, which typically takes place during the last week of July and at the Oak Park Public Library, including three-hour sessions where students learn how to look for work, build resumes, collect references and be successful in the job interview.  

Johnson said she knows job and college admissions interviews can be scary and intimidating for teens, but they don’t have to be. The key to nailing the interview, she said, is to treat it like a conversation. The whole point of the interview is for the applicant and the potential employer or admissions director to get to know each other, she said. 

“You are interviewing the employer just as well as they are interviewing you,” Johnson said. “You want to have a good fit wherever you apply. Not every role you apply for, every job you apply for, is meant for you. You just got to find one that’s the best fit for you.”

For many job seekers, it’s a lesson learned through time and practice, but Johnson said she weaves that message in as early as Day 1 of the workshop. She tells teens the story about her first job interview for a telemarketing position at Time Magazine, which had an office in Chicago. Johnson said a friend told her about the position, and she applied in person and was called back for an interview.

“I had no resume,” said Johnson, who was 17 at the time, a high school graduate looking for a part-time summer job before heading to college in the fall. “I never forget when I showed up, I was nervous. Back then, we didn’t have the internet. Who was going to tell me how to dress?” 

One thing Johnson recalled was she “showed up with my best self” and gave herself a pep talk. “I told myself: ‘You have to relax. Just take a deep breath. Treat this like a casual conversation.’” She was hired for that position. “And that’s worked for me throughout my career.” 

Though Jay Ahn’s first interview did not have a happy ending like Johnson’s, he has taken her advice and is prepared to score the next one. The incoming OPRF senior said he no longer fears being asked to “tell me about yourself,” which initially stumped him in that first interview.   

“I remember I was kind of answering the question, but I wasn’t so sure if I was actually answering it,” recalled Ahn, 17, whose first interview was for an internship at an airline. “I wasn’t so sure if I was presenting myself in the best way I could be.” 

With Johnson’s help, Ahn said he felt a little more comfortable navigating those open-ended questions. Now, if a future employer or college admissions director asked him to describe himself, he said he just might have a better answer. 

“You want to portray yourself in the best way,” he said. “If new things happen in my life, I just want to point out [those] things that have happened [and] the things I’ve learned from those experiences.”  

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