Author: Stephanie Whitham
Intern, GreenLight Fund Bay Area

In early 2013, GreenLight Fund selected Genesys Works to be its first portfolio organization to import into the San Francisco Bay Area. Genesys Works is a national nonprofit organization that started in Houston, Texas over 12 years ago to help change the life trajectories for low-income students through meaningful work opportunities with a region’s best companies. GreenLight is investing $1.165M over five years to support students like Peony Yu (story below) with Genesys Works’ launch and growth in the Bay Area.

Many have experienced “senioritis,” or having no motivation during senior year in high school. It is hard to avoid with all the excitement of the celebrations, college acceptances, and graduation just around the corner. Peony Yu not only avoided senioritis, but she made her senior year one of the most productive and meaningful times of her high school career.

Peony was born and raised in Oakland, CA by her mother and described herself as a curious child, always wanting to try new things. When Peony saw a presentation by Genesys Works at her high school during her junior year, she learned she could have the opportunity to be placed in a year-long program that would match her with a paid internship as well as help with the college application process. Peony was immediately drawn to the fantastic opportunity, and was encouraged by her mother and brother to take a chance and try something new.

Peony applied and was accepted to be part of the pilot cohort of young professionals for Genesys Works Bay Area. After initial acceptance into the program, Peony then attended an eight-week summer training where she learned to communicate and take initiative in a professional setting, as well as technical skills that Peony would use during her internship. At the end of the eight weeks, Peony was assigned to work for Gensler, an architecture firm in downtown San Francisco. Landen Zernickow, Program Coordinator and Alumni Success Manager at Genesys Works Bay Area, remembers Peony beginning the training as one of the more quiet students of the group, but by the end of the training Peony was taking initiative and was becoming more comfortable advocating for herself.

As Peony began her senior year, she was faced with the challenge of managing a difficult schedule that included multiple Advanced Placement and Honors classes and an internship where she would work until 5 p.m. 5 days a week, plus, she was working hard to complete her college applications.

Beyond the challenge of managing many commitments, Peony remembers being very nervous her first day working at Gensler, concerned that she was not fully prepared to handle her responsibilities. Peony was surprised at how quickly she was able to complete tasks, with her supervisor giving her more and more work as her internship progressed through the school year. When I asked Peony if her internship was what she expected she happily responded, “I didn’t expect to have fun!” She thought she was just going to go to work and that would be it, but she realized she made valuable connections with her co-workers and enjoyed her projects and tasks. Peony described some of her biggest lessons learned as “not being afraid to make mistakes, and learning how to adapt to a different work environment that includes communicating with and asking co-workers for help.”

Approximately 8 months into her internship and senior year, Peony was accepted to the University of California – Irvine and plans study Biological Science. Peony is excited about attending college, and credits Genesys Works for giving her the extra confidence to be more outgoing and seek out new opportunities. She is even planning to join the dance team at UC-Irvine to help meet new people and try something she has not done before. However, before she even thinks of being on UC-Irvine’s campus, she will complete the remainder of her 12-month internship with Gensler at the end of this summer.

One of Genesys Works’ goals is not only to support students to access college, but to also support their persistence to college graduation – more than 95% of Genesys Works graduates go on to college, with more than 86% persisting beyond their first year. Like all Genesys Works Bay Area alumni, Peony will have Genesys Works as a resource throughout her collegiate career. Staff will continue to work with each of the young professionals to ensure they are on the path to success to matriculate and graduate from post-secondary institutions.
Peony does not know what she wants to do after graduating from college. However, she hopes to have a job where she can travel and continue to foster her curiosity – with her new mantra leading the way: “never say no to an opportunity.”