By Jonathan Marshall
Recently, a diverse group of Oakland middle-schoolers was asking about how nuclear power works, the challenges of running hydroelectric facilities in a drought and the meaning of graphs displaying electricity supply levels on California’s power grid.
They weren’t in their usual class at Westlake Middle School. Instead, they were at PG&E’s San Francisco headquarters for their first day of orientation to the Spark program.
Spark, a nationwide youth development program, places at-risk 7th and 8th grade students with mentors who provide inspiration and guidance about education, career interests, and professional goals.
Ten students are being mentored this spring by members of PG&E’s Law, Human Resources, Electric Operations and Corporate Affairs departments.
Daycee Senamatmontry said she loves watching “Law and Order” and wants to be a lawyer, so getting to know Ann Kim, lead counsel for electric operations, and Samantha Allen-Wise, the Law Department’s senior executive assistant, will give her invaluable experience.
‘A great idea’
PG&E began participating in the Spark program last year after Senior Vice President and General Counsel Hyun Park attended a presentation at the urging of his wife. “It instantly struck me as a great idea” to help make a difference in the lives of impressionable middle school students, Park recalled.
Juanita Luna, PG&E’s director of legal administration, had seen an inspiring segment about Spark on “The Today Show.” So when Park asked her to help bring the program to PG&E, she needed no convincing. The only challenge, she said, was trying to make lawyers as interesting to young students as artists, chefs or policemen.
The first batch of three students was initially reserved, but opened up as they got to know their mentors and others in the Law Department.
Park took a personal interest in each of the students, impressing them with the importance of safety, and teaching them basic professional skills like how to look someone in the eye and shake their hand with confidence.
PG&E mentors also took them on tours to meet lawyers and judges outside the utility.
“The kids got a real kick out of sitting in judges’ seats,” said Steve Frank, a PG&E lawyer and two-time mentor. They also enjoyed “zipping across the city” in cabs. “Some of the kids hadn’t been in taxis before,” Frank said.
Mentorship ends with presentation
At the end of every 10-week mentorship, the students make presentations to parents, teachers, mentors and fellow students at their school.
One group of students put together a presentation on the pros and cons of various styles of practicing law. They were torn between the casual informality at one advocacy organization and the fancy offices of a corporate law firm—at least until they learned about the long hours expected at the firm.
Another student, coached by Mark Nguyen, a credit risk analyst in Finance and Risk, overcame his bashful personality to host an amusing question-and-answer game with fellow students at the school’s Discovery Night.
“It was a challenge for him but a huge accomplishment,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t have a mentorship until after college. It would have made a difference in my life if I’d had a program like this early in my life.”
The Spark program benefits not only students, but their mentors and PG&E more broadly.
Watching the students “opening up and growing more confidence with each visit to PG&E was an incredibly rewarding experience for us,” Park said.
Luna agreed: “It just lifted everyone to have these 8th graders come to our meetings and interviewing everyone. It’s had a really positive impact on morale in our department.”
Michael Coyle, who manages PG&E’s Diversity and Inclusion program, sees longer range benefits. “Reaching back to middle school is part of our workforce development strategy,” he said. “Doing good for the community is by no means a secondary goal, but this is also a way to ensure we have a talent pipeline into our diverse communities.”
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