By the end of her junior year in High School, Sarahí Zavala had never been employed. She didn’t even enjoy talking to people. But thanks to the This Way Ahead Program, a collaboration between Gap Inc and SER, Sarahí has gone through a transformation. Barely a year removed from enrolling, Sarahí says the experience made her do “a 180.”
Originally from Mexico, Sarahí’s parents left their native San Luis looking for a better future for their three year-old daughter. They settled in Houston, but without being able to speak English, they ended up relying on Sarahí as soon as she was able to learn the language.
But that wasn’t easy.
“I remember that learning English was the hardest thing ever,” she says with a laugh. Oddly enough, given that she still doesn’t speak the language, Sarahí’s mother played a key part in this difficult process. “She used to make me watch TV shows after school,” Sarahí says. “The best advice she gave me was "if you can't understand it, just do what everyone else is doing." So if the teacher would say "Stand up, get in line," I would just look around and see what everyone else is doing, and would try to remember what words were connected to that action.”
Sarahí eventually mastered the language, which meant she could help her parents navigate the intricacies of life in the United States. “Since I was very little,” she says, “I've had to step up. And I think that makes me who I am today. Being the adult in any situation that I'm put into.”
Time went on, and last year Sarahí found herself looking online for programs she could join during the summer between her junior and senior year of high school. She found the This Way Ahead (TWA) program through SER’s website, and it seemed like a perfect match. “What drove me to it was the fact that it was kind of like competition,” Sarahí says. “You're kind of fighting for that one spot. And I thought this was perfect - this is going to showcase how competitive I am, and how driven I am.”
After completing her online application, Sarahí was chosen for an interview, which she aced despite being “so nervous.” She was then selected to participate in an 8-week job readiness course. The next step was an interview with actual Gap store managers in charge of picking the candidates for the three month internship. Unsurprisingly, Sarahí received one of the coveted spots, and she was thrilled about the new experience. “You're basically working,” she says. “You're not doing anything different than any other employee there, which I think is pretty amazing. Because even though you call it an internship, you have a job.”
Sarahí was one of four TWA participants who were selected for internships at the Rice Village Gap store, but she ended up being the only one who remained there once the three months were over. “I really like it,” Sarahí says. I love the area that it's located in, I love my managers, my coworkers. It doesn't feel like a job. It feels more like an activity that I get to do outside of school that I just enjoy.” Perhaps this is why Sarahí manages to successfully juggle her last high school year with her job at the store. A typical day finds Sarahí at school from 8 to 3:30, followed by eating and changing in a “pretty fast-paced” hour, and starting at Gap at 5 in the afternoon. “I tend to close, so my day ends at around 10:30,” she says. “Then I just go home and sleep.”
Sarahí is aware of how uncommon it is for someone her age to manage work and study successfully. “A lot of my friends don't have a job, and it's mainly because their parents have the belief that you should focus on school, and that's all you should do.” Sarahí’s mom was also worried, but in the end she and her husband supported Sarahí’s decision.
The TWA experience also had an unexpected influence in what Sarahí had in mind in terms of what to study in college. When Sarahí applied to TWA as a high school junior, she mentioned having a “strong interest in psychology and early childhood education.” However, that’s not what she’ll be going to college for. “While we were doing TWA we had a little meet and greet with a lot of different people in different fields,” she says. “And I actually got to meet a childhood psychologist. One of the things I clearly remember her telling me is if I'm not the kind of person that can leave my work life at work, then childhood psychology might not be the best for me. Because sometimes you might have patients that are not always success stories. If I can feel the weight of that failure at home, then it's probably not the best field to go towards. And that just completely changed my view of the field.”
Instead, Sarahí is looking to enroll in the University of Houston this coming fall as a Political Science major. “I learned to love communication while at TWA.” she says. “I feel like communicating is basically everything that we worked on.”
This year, Sarahí even got invited to be a part of the TWA Alumni Advisory Board. During monthly conference calls, Sarahí provides insights from her own experience with the program for the benefit of future participants. It was through this opportunity that Sarahí ended up meeting Melina Wyatt, who is the program manager for the nationwide TWA program. “That was pretty exciting because it's networking at its finest,” she says. “It was putting to work what you learn at TWA, right here, right now.”
Reflecting back on her journey, Sarahí can clearly identify the effect TWA had on her. “I just feel like I matured with the program,” Sarahí says. “It almost feels funny to look back and realize that it was just a year ago. Back then I was just a kid. I didn't have a job, I didn't really like talking to people, because I was pretty scared to talk to them.”
“But TWA is not just about getting the job. It just opened my eyes to the fact that my life was not just in high school. There was so much out there.”