When I think back to what I was doing the summer before I went to college, I can assure you it was nothing too ambitious.
In high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do; I had no good answer for “what I want to be when I grow up.” My goal was to just enjoy life, and maybe a deeper ambition would start to arise from that.
During my senior year, I was lucky enough to have college counselors on hand to help me with everything from A-Z when it came to the application and acceptance process, and several mentors who proved integral in helping me find my path (looking at you, Kelly Kirwan from AP English).
While this experience is nothing special or unique, I feel as though it’s often overlooked or taken for granted, because a lot of kids don’t have the same support I had—or maybe they didn’t even have access to it at all.
I recently had the chance to chat with Halleemah Nash and Chiquira Showers who work for The Academy Group, a unique social enterprise that aims to unlock opportunities for kids who come from the most resilient communities and often fall prey to the “opportunity gap.” A lot of kids—especially kids who come from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds and low-income households—don’t have resources or role models when it comes to education, and while talent is found everywhere, opportunity is often scarce and concentrated.
The Academy Group aims to close that gap in Chicago.
Its 14-year journey model is unique in the fact that there are no other programs in Chicago that provide resources for this length of time, following kids from elementary school all the way to college, making sure there’s little room for them to slip through the cracks. The earlier programs focus on foundational academic skills, communication, leadership and passion for learning, and the College Journey emphasizes real job experience to build resumes and readiness for full-time employment.
This workforce development program provides exposure, access and acumen to students through networking and hands-on experience through internships with corporate partners, like Tyson Foods.
Luckily for us, as I’m told by Halleemah and Chiquira, this summer we got one of the best of the best from their program—Letandre Stenneth. After gushing about his unrivaled curiosity, ambition to succeed, and unapologetic authenticity, and also labeling him as “a beautiful example” of The Academy Group’s mission, I had to meet him.
As I sat down with Letandre (“Dre,” as he told me to call him) and I could immediately feel his energy and his drive. And I hope you can too.
See how he’s been feeling about his internship this summer, check out his plans for the future, and learn how he attributes The Academy Group for making him the young man he is today.
Q. You’re fresh out of high school—class of 2019. How does it feel to be spending your summer as an intern at a company as big as Tyson Foods?
Honestly, it’s a different experience. Because although it’s hard at times to see other teenagers taking the summer off to get ready for college and having fun, I’m having a blast as well, but in a different way. I feel like I’m actually part of something that matters, and I feel like my opinion in the office is really valued. Another huge plus is that I actually get corporate workplace experience—probably a lot sooner than others—which betters my resume in comparison to my peers.
Q: Did you have any similar intern experiences during high school, or any summer jobs? How would you say those compare to this experience?
The only other internship I’ve had was an engineering internship at Columbia University Chicago. But I would say it doesn’t compare to this one. I exist within a team here and I get to learn things and apply them almost instantaneously. It’s not as mechanical as just being assigned a task, having to do it a certain way, and then checking it off the list. I’m left to my own means on how to approach assignments and I’m learning a lot about my work style. All in all, I think I’m doing a pretty good job so far!
Q: Humblebrag—I love it! Having only one other internship experience, did you have any expectations before starting at Tyson this summer?
To be completely honest, I didn’t approach this internship with any expectations, but rather an opportunity to just learn and absorb anything I could from being in the corporate environment. One thing this really opened my eyes to was the corporate side of the food industry, which I never really knew existed. Typically, when I think of the food industry, I always thought the highest it went was a managerial job at McDonald’s or something like that, but this job has taught me way more than that.
Q: The reason you’re at Tyson this summer is in part due to The Academy Group. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with the organization?
I’ve been a part of The Academy Group for a little over a year now and the experience has been amazing. The fact that I have adults in my corner that genuinely care for me and my progress in this world is inspiring. One thing that has really impacted me is the sheer amount of support they gave me through the college application process. For about a month straight, I was in and out of their office almost every day, talking with one of my mentors until I felt like my application was 100% ready. But the best part was that it was through trials and tribulations that I was able to reach that point where I felt like I was truly ready to apply for college. To this day, my mentor and I still talk on that deeper level and joke about certain things that he made me understand about myself.
Q: How has The Academy Group impacted you in a professional sense, but also in a personal sense? Is there one lesson that sticks out in your mind, or one thing you came to realize about yourself during your involvement with the organization?
The most important lesson that The Academy Group has taught me is to choose who you surround yourself with wisely. Seek people out who are good at things you aren’t and learn from them. Build your brand by expanding your skillset. Surrounding yourself with people who are just like you closes so many doors and doesn’t open your mind to all the opportunities or possibilities. Without this knowledge, I would not have realized that I have so much to learn from people who are genuinely great at what they do—whether it’s something technical like a subject in school or something transferrable that will contribute to my personal development.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for organizations like The Academy Group to exist and provide opportunities to kids who may come from homes or schools or neighborhoods that make it hard to focus on a career path?
Organizations like The Academy Group are very important in the natural order of things because just like you said, certain people come from backgrounds where they’re predisposed to fail and there is nothing they can do about it. The worst part is the often dangerous, cyclical nature in those same communities—once you’re born into it, there’s a very small chance of escaping, and organizations like The Academy Group are helping to fight that brutal cycle. They inspire us to become change-makers and hopefully, later on, we reach back out into those same neighborhoods and inspire other kids who are just like us, aiming to create a new cycle in those neighborhoods, not only in Chicago, but across the country.
Q: Do you think you’d be in a different spot if you weren’t involved with The Academy Group?
For starters, I would not have this internship and I definitely would not be heading to Brown University this fall. And that’s huge for me. I cannot say it enough: The Academy Group has changed my life. They took what I was good at and amplified it hundredfold. I doubt I would be going to college without their assistance and guidance.
Q: Brown University?! Amazing! I mean, not like they have a 9% acceptance rate or anything, you little baby genius! So, what are your plans at Brown? What do you want to be when you grow up?
I know for a fact that I want to be a surgeon when I grow up. I know that I have the tenacity for it, but most importantly, I want to make an impact. I came to Chicago from Jamaica in 2011, and frankly, the medical industry there is a bit of a mess. Becoming a surgeon would grant me the ability to go back to Jamaica and create large scale change.
Q: Before you leave us in a few weeks, is there anything else you want to add before we ship you off to Providence, RI?
I want to extend my gratitude to Tyson Foods, Sharon Funches [Director of FSQA at Tyson Foods] and Leslie Drish [Manager of Diversity and Inclusion]. I know bringing on such a young intern is a risk, but I was grateful for this opportunity every day. I hope that Tyson extends this opportunity to other teens across the city to open their eyes to the intricate ins and outs of the food industry, because it’s so much more than most people imagine when they think of a food company.