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'Career Beginnings' Helps Young People Plan Ahead


You're about to carry the banner as the only member of your family ever to go to college. You're proud of that, and you're eager to get your academic career off the ground.

But it isn't that easy when your parents and most of your family live on the other side of the world and you're still coming to grips with the intricacies of the local culture and language. And the time has come to start zeroing in on what you want to do with the rest of your life. What you want more than anything is a little straight talk and good advice, and maybe a friend with a connection or two.

Fortunately for Hieu Vo, Scott Donnelly is only a short walk away.

"The first day, when he called me on the phone, I just said, 'Who's he?' " said Vo, 19, smiling and making a mock quizzical face. "But we got to be really good friends. I got to be able to talk to him about other things than the program--like a friend."

"The program"--the organization that is helping Vo and dozens of other high school students from disadvantaged families in Orange County--is called Career Beginnings, and its title is the most succinct description of its purpose.

Begun at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and in its seventh year in Orange County, Career Beginnings is designed to pair high school juniors--generally students who are immigrants or who have learned English as a second language--with adult professional mentors who help the students plan their educational and professional futures. Between 50 and 60 such pairings are made here each year, Donnelly said.

The Donnelly-Vo teaming was typical of the program. Slightly more than a year ago, a representative from Career Beginnings, which has its Orange County headquarters at Rancho Santiago College, outlined the program to one of Vo's classes at Valley High School. Vo later submitted an application and last summer was accepted and began attending a series of the once-a-week workshops held throughout the summer to help the students become acquainted with, among other things, the paperwork and logistics of entering college.

"They talked about the classes you need to take and about financial aid--things like that," Vo said. "It really helped."


Things began to get more personal last fall. Vo had indicated an interest in studying accounting and was paired with Donnelly, who is a CPA and a member of the Career Beginnings board of directors.

That began a year of regular meetings between the two, mostly to discuss career and educational options and plans, but occasionally just to visit and talk, sometimes over pizza. The meetings were made more convenient by the fact that Vo--who makes his home with his sister and brother-in-law and their two children--lives only a few blocks from Donnelly's Santa Ana home, where he sometimes drops in for a quick hello.

As a result of the geographic proximity, Donnelly and Vo may actually be closer than some of the Career Beginnings pairs, since the organization's guidelines for mentors specifies that mentors should "take a genuine interest in the day-to-day life of your student--without intruding or becoming a 'parent substitute.' " The relationship is intended to be mostly an academic and professional one. According to the organization's guidelines, "A mentor should strive to help a student in ways that fulfill the goals a parent has for their child: success and strength of character."

Parental direction has been strong in Vo's life, but it came from a distance. Born and raised in Vietnam, he came to California in 1988 after spending six months in the Philippines having papers processed and preparing to enter the United States. However, he left most of his family--his mother, father, three sisters and a brother--behind in Vietnam.

At his mother's insistence, he said, he, as the youngest child, would come to America, take advantage of the more abundant educational opportunities here, and become the first college-educated member of the Vo family. He plans to enter Cal State Fullerton in the fall as a business major.

"We don't look for the 4.0s, or the 2.0s either," Donnelly said . "Mostly we have average kids who probably have been in ESL (English as a second language) classes and basically who are getting by. Quite a few students don't have college-educated family members."

A mentoring program for such students may offer an ideal boost to both ego and ambition, said Carol Stanley, who is the coordinator of a similar student-to-student mentor program at UCI.

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