Students hone skills in unique work study program

Cristo Rey program gives students real-world work experience in Twin Cities

Reyna Tejada headshot
Reyna Tejada, St. Paul Harding Senior High School
Yoko Vue headshot
Yoko Vue, St. Paul Central Senior High School

CHRISTIAN MEJIA KNOWS how to stay busy.

Each week, the Minneapolis high school student has to juggle classes, soccer practice and, for one full day, a job.

Like all students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in south Minneapolis, Mejia has to balance his studies and work at the same time as part of the school’s Corporate Work Study Program, which provides students with work experience that helps them pay for more than half of their tuition bill.

“It helps better prepare them to go on to college and go on to their careers,” said Kris Donnelly, the executive director of the program. “They get to learn technical skills in a way that a normal student doesn’t.”

Every student is assigned a job based on his or her skills and must go through a two-week training during the summer. A team of four students takes turns in the same position at a company without missing class.

Nafiso Shire (left), a 2015 graduate of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis, works with Lucy Werenicz in April a the Minneapolis office of Children’s Respiratory and Critical Care Specialist, PA, as part of Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program.

Each student is given one day from Monday to Thursday and one Friday every month to work from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Cristo Rey has longer school days and a school year from August to June to fulfill academic studies and work time. Companies pay the school $30,000 for a team.

“When our students start interviewing for scholarships for college, they interview really well because they are mature and they have thought things through differently, so I think they get an advantage in those areas,” Donnelly said.

Mejia, 17, a senior, has attended the school since his freshman year. He works at Convey Compliance Systems, a tax and technology company based in Minnetonka, and helps people with technology issues.

“They treat you like a young adult,” Mejia said. “I don’t feel like I get left out whatsoever.”

It was not Mejia’s choice to attend Cristo Rey; it was his parents’. His transition from middle school to high school was difficult because of the schedule and workload. But, he said, he discovered that Cristo Rey was a “great opportunity” because he gained skills that will help him in the future.

However, school is more stressful than work, he said.

“I actually get happy when the workday is coming up because I feel like it is an opportunity to catch up on homework or projects” during non-working time, he said.

Jenae’ Jenkins, 17, a senior, said she updates computer files at Diversified Distribution Systems, a supply distribution services company in Brooklyn Park.

“I love the people at my job,” Jenkins said. “They make me feel like I’m part of their little community.” She also feels ready for more work responsibility, she said.

Cristo Rey is one of 30 schools across the nation that is part of a network of Jesuit Catholic schools. However, students of all faiths are welcome.

The first Cristo Rey High School opened in Chicago 20 years ago, and the Corporate Work Study Program has been a part of the school ever since. In the beginning, the program was a way for students to help the school financially, but soon the school realized its students were being challenged in different ways.

Jenae’ Jenkins (center) and Christian Mejia (right), shown with Kris Donnelly, the executive director of Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program, are students in the Corporate Work Study Program at Cristo Rey in Minneapolis.

In Minnesota, the work study program includes more than 90 companies and nonprofits, including Dorsey & Whitney law firm and the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Cristo Rey students pay approximately $13,250 per year for their education, but the work study program helps families pay more than half that cost. Financial aid also is available.

Mejia said he plans to study engineering or business in college. His interest in technology developed through one of his jobs during the program.

Jenkins said she is indecisive about whether to study nursing or enter the National Guard.

Either way, Jenkins would not change anything about her Cristo Rey experience, she said.

“In the long run, I really like it,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to trade [this] high school at all.”