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Samueli Academy's Summer Work Program Offers Jobs That Can Change Students' Lives

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Barely a high school senior, A.J. Castaneda this summer entered a world he knew existed but never believed he could reach. 

To be honest, Castaneda, just 17 years old, was perfectly happy in his old world, working in the outdoors since he was 9 years old with his father, who is a landscaper.

But a few months ago, Castaneda, a student at the still-growing Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, stepped out of his comfort zone and into an internship that unlocked his potential and may prove to be life changing.

“I could be a professional,” Castaneda exclaims of his internship at Lyon Living, a Newport Beach-based apartment management company. “I could work in an office building.”

For many, a job with a roof over your head may not seem like a big deal. But for a teenager who grew up with an immigrant father who had to drop out of school in the third grade to help his family, it’s a quantum leap.

Heck, dress shirt and slacks – every work day – are a big deal.

The cool thing about the charter school, purposely set in an underserved area, is that administrators succeeded in finding internships for the entire inaugural graduating class during their first attempt. Yes, all 115 seniors – the school only this semester added 12th grade – had an internship thanks to 41 local businesses.

Even cooler? The teenagers’ perseverance and determination is inspirational.

Castaneda left work at 5:30 in the evening and didn’t get home until 8. For his internship, he traveled by bus a total of five hours a day.


Mitch Hatz lives with his family in San Juan Capistrano, surfs and chooses to spend three hours a day commuting by train and bus to school.

Considering the number of schools Hatz passes on his way to Samueli Academy, his commute seems nuts. But the 17-year-old is on a mission.

“I don’t want to leave anything on the table.”

The academy, he says, offers more opportunities for college and career mentoring than any other school in Orange County. That may or may not be true. But what is certain is that Hatz gives his all to everything he tackles.

Hatz lost his left eye to cancer when he was a baby. Yet he doesn’t mention it, just as he doesn’t mention he was voted captain of both the school’s basketball and golf teams – while a sophomore.

Why did his teammates select him? Hatz shrugs, offers the only explanation: “Leadership.”

The comment isn’t bragging. It’s simply honest.

Hatz walked in the doors to his internship at Pacific Alternative Asset Management Co., an institutional investment firm in Irvine, with a far different background than Castaneda. His parents graduated from Cal State Fullerton. His mother is a marketing specialist; his father is a loan officer.

Still, high school students tend to be awkward. Not Hatz.

“He rolled right in,” recalls Whitney Gomez, director for accounts management at PAAMCO. “He knew how to handle himself.”

Like other Samueli Academy interns, Hatz was assigned significant work. He analyzed competitor websites, reviewed blogs, examined customer service. He performed better than OK.

“He just stood out,” says Alan Kessel, PAAMCO senior vice president for global human resources. “People asked, ‘Can we hire Mitch?’”

Hatz has company.


Before Chelsey Martinez opened the door at Opus Bank in Irvine, she knew where she wanted to go to college: Stanford or UC Berkeley. She also knew she wanted to become a lawyer.

But her internship changed things. Knowledge is funny like that.

Today, her choices for college are the same. But now she’s also considering a career in business.

Martinez, 17, bounced between Santa Ana and Irvine as her parents, a construction worker and a paralegal, struggled to live in districts with strong schools. When Samueli Academy opened with its project-based learning program, the decision was easy.

Martinez applied and was accepted.

The school, which also takes in foster teens from Orangewood, specializes in getting teens ready for college. Judges, firefighters, doctors visit to help. Still, the internship program was an eye-opener.

Mentors at Opus Bank coached her, Martinez says, on topics ranging from what to wear in a business environment to staying on top of work schedules.

“Every step you take in life should be a step toward your goal,” Martinez says, repeating advice from one mentor. “Never close doors to opportunities.

During her internship, Martinez evaluated ways to attract customers in our ever-changing world. She reviewed the attraction of bank buildings compared with walk-up kiosks.

Like Hatz, Martinez rocked it.

During her interview, Opus Bank associate Jin Gao says, “It was, wow, it was hard to believe she was only 16 years old.”

Gao, who was a college intern last year at Opus, says Martinez’s retail traffic analysis was spot on. “We’d love to have Chelsey back next year.”

Jenny Simmons of Opus Bank goes even further. “She’s one of the most impressive human beings I’ve ever met.”


Castaneda lives in what he calls a gang area of Santa Ana. Like many parents in the neighborhood, his mother and father have witnessed and fear the pull of gangs.

Fortunately, they needn’t fear for their son, a teenager who practices soccer with his brother 90 minutes every night.

Robert Wilson, director of information technology at Lyon Living, joins the effort to help young people. He offers gentle tough love, cautioning interns, “You’re only one mistake away from ruining the rest of your life.”

Castaneda is a star soccer goalkeeper at Samueli Academy and says he used to be more interested in school and soccer than anything. But after his internship in Lyon Living’s IT department, he is considering trying to get a computer-related job.

The teen looks up to a colleague who took him under his wing, advised and motivated him. “He’s 27 years old,” the teen marvels, “and he has a BMW.”

The high school senior also discovered something beyond material goods. “I thought office work would be boring, but it’s not.”

The internship, Wilson says, “opened A.J.’s eyes to the opportunities out there. It gives me chills just thinking about it.”

With open doors, these teens need only step over the threshold – and keep striving.

Originally Published By: Orange County Register
Author: David Whiting
Date: September 3, 2016

Contact the writer: [email protected]

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