On Friday morning, the student body at Portage High School experienced a unique opportunity to explore potential careers, practice their workforce readiness skills, and build valuable connections that will serve as a touchstone for future endeavors.
Hosted by Junior Achievement of Chicago Northwest Indiana Division (JA NWI) in collaboration with Portage EDC, Purdue University Northwest (PNW) College of Business, and Portage High School teachers and administrators, the JA Inspire Career Day featured more than 30 business vendors and dozens of interactive outlets for students to gain insight on career options right in the Region. The event is the first for them in the area, and nearly 180 volunteers including business professionals, PNW students, and educators worked to ensure the event was an authentic experience for the students.
“When we formed this partnership with Purdue Northwest and Portage EDC, we were really trying to address the needs local business professionals expressed to us,” said Roz Malouhos, Director of Operations for JA NWI. “Many students enter the work world feeling overwhelmed and underprepared, and many of them aren’t even aware of the opportunities available to them right in the Region. With this event, we’re hoping to prepare tomorrow’s leaders by helping to show them what to expect in the work world, and to make it seem less scary.”
Portage High School juniors and seniors attended the career fair portion of JA Inspire, connecting with Region business leaders in the PHS fieldhouse and later receiving JA’s It’s My Job Soft Skills activities in their classrooms. Toting a brag sheet listing their GPA, various activities they’re involved in, and interests, they were encouraged to deliver a 10-second elevator pitch to potential employers for feedback and perhaps a potential open door to a career path.
Meanwhile, freshmen participated in a JA Career Success activity presented by PNW College of Business students, and sophomores participated in JA It’s My Job Soft Skills activities presented by community volunteers. Activities included working in teams to create a structure using just note cards and paper clips. Malouhos and Jordan Hallow, a career consultant and Business 400 instructor for PNW, said that such exercises help build those soft skills that make people employable, such as the ability to work in a team, manage time, and effectively communicate.
“No matter which career you end up in, you’re going to have to work with a group at some point,” Hallow said.
“JA introduces the four c’s—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity,” Malouhos said. “And isn’t that why people really get hired? Not just because they demonstrate a specific skill, but because they demonstrate those soft skills that make them desirable to work with.”
Though JA Inspire gave students a close look at local career opportunities, these other facets of the event elevated it above the typical career fair, teaching skills that students will carry in any step of life beyond high school.
“I think kids need more exposure to all kinds of careers, all the different levels that go into a business,” said Robbi Garcia, Assistant Principal at Portage High School. “For instance, there are more than engineers at Monosol—there are also marketing professionals. Every company has many departments, and I don’t think students are fully aware of those options.”
Portage High School Senior Tommy Elwood agreed. Embarking to DePaul University in the fall to pursue a major in communications with a minor in sports marketing, Elwood said he is interested in attending law school after he receives his undergraduate degree.
“I noticed at the Porter Regional Hospital booth that there’s a department focused solely on legal matters, and I talked to the Indiana State Police vendor about working in a department of government, too,” Elwood said. “It was nice to keep some of those options in mind if I ever do pursue a law degree.”
“Porter Regional Hospital is always excited to take part in community events, and we look forward to having young students learn about all the career opportunities available in healthcare,” said Shelley Donnell, a human resources generalist for the hospital.
Elwood said he appreciated the fair because he watched several of his friends get more concrete ideas of their next steps after high school.
“Unlike me, a lot of my friends don’t know what they’re interested in pursuing, and some of them aren’t going to college,” Elwood said. “This gives them a chance to explore careers right out of high school, or decide on what they want to study in college.”
Hannah Russell, a senior at Portage High School, is deciding between Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Alabama for her undergraduate career.
“I want to go into healthcare,” she said. “It’s been really helpful to visit the booths and talk to people in person. The fair has opened up a lot of opportunities for those talks.”
Malouhos stressed that such discussions were especially key to participants.
“When kids are empowered to make good choices, they go on to build a stronger future community,” she said. “But they don’t often have the opportunity to ask questions, to be introspective. We don’t know what their situations are like at home, whether they’re being empowered by someone in their lives to ask those questions and to grow. And so you never know how just one person with an outsider’s perspective might impact a student’s life for the better. I hope some of those conversations are happening right now.”
The mission of JA is to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy, and the organization seeks to empower young people to own their future success by making a connection between what they learn in school and how it can be applied in the real world. Malouhos hopes the program, which is geared toward middle school students, can be more regularly applied to students of every age, especially given the success of JA Inspire at Portage High School and Indiana’s new Graduation Pathways requirements. The new requirements make high school students choose a more personalized career trajectory and acquire a certain number of work experience credits ahead of receiving their diplomas.
Amy Parker, Executive Director of Portage EDC and board member for JA NWI, was instrumental in organizing the JA Inspire Career Day, creating a sturdy tie between the business community and educators.
“For me, this event represents everything that is good about Portage,” she said. “The partnership between Portage EDC, Portage Township Schools, and the business community as a whole shows that everyone is invested in our students and their futures.”
The JA Inspire event serves an extension of Portage EDC’s 360 program, which helps connect future workforce and businesses through tangible experience.
“This event, I am hoping, will become an annual tradition and will continue to grow,” Parker said. “Everyone has worked so hard to make this event impactful for the entire school and ensure that the business community feels that the event is worth their time.”
Representatives from NIPSCO, ArcelorMittal, Holladay Properties, Porter Regional Hospital, St. Mary Medical Center, NorthShore Health Centers, First Merchants Bank, Valparaiso University’s meteorology department, and many more enjoyed connecting with students as much as students did with them.
“Having Holladay Properties involved today is a reinforcement that our company matters,” said Jessica Vargas, an architect for Holladay Properties and member of the JA board. “Our mission at Holladay is to enrich lives through investment and service, and so our mission and values really align with JA’s. Those values are really resonant here today.”
Marcia Hardison, Communications Specialist for NIPSCO, graduated from Portage High School in 1984 and participated in the JA program in junior high school.
“I’m happy to be here for the students, paying it back to my alma mater and everything the JA program stands for,” Hardison said.
As the day unfolded, PNW students found the added value in participating as well.
“These students [at PNW] are graduating in a few months themselves, and what better way to help them make that transition than to allow them to be mentors,” Hallow said. “They have the chance to share their experience with the high schoolers, to talk about their majors with them, and help them develop real world skills.”
“I love this,” said Ruhani Sharma, a PNW marketing and business analytics student and teller at People’s Bank. “I’m always looking for more opportunities to get involved in the community and to give back in some way. This is my first time working with high school students like this. I’d love to get more involved in the future!”
For students and professionals at Portage High School’s JA Inspire Career Day, the event demonstrated a passionate show of support for the community and its many moving parts.
“The power of coming together,” Malounos said.
To learn more about JA NWI, visit https://www.juniorachievement.org/web/ja-chicago/eastern-division.
To learn more about the ways Portage EDC continues to bolster a thriving community, visit http://portagein.org/.