Gaining experience and sharing knowledge through the CAYLA extension program

The summer is wrapping up for a group of college students and alumni of the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy (CAYLA) who are participating in the academy’s extension internship program. But they say the benefit of interning in their prospective fields has been invaluable, as has the interaction they have had with younger CAYLA participants.

The CAYLA program recruits high school students and connects them with paid summer internship programs in city departments and participating community non-profits and organizations. Throughout the summer and school year, students also participate in workshops that focus on topics like financial literacy and the college application process as well as take on community service projects.

The CAYLA initiative supports Asheville City Council’s desire to raise, educate and retain local students so they can become Asheville’s future professionals. Each year, CAYLA students earn thousands in scholarships for advancing their education.

With graduates of previous CAYLA classes now in college, program director Erika Germer saw an opportunity to continue that momentum with an extension program that creates paid internship opportunities for students returning home over the summer break.

When she reached out to the college students via emails and the program’s Facebook account, the interest was there. Six students are participating in the program, interning in city departments like Information Technology or with participating community organizations like the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC).

“It’s always good to have practice at being in a professional environment,” says Gio Figaro, who interns in both the City of Asheville’s Finance Department and at HomeTrust Bank. “It gives you great practical experience for the field and valuable networking opportunities.”

Figaro is beginning his junior year at UNC Asheville, where he is an accounting major and found the internships to be good matches. “I’m a meticulous, organized kind of a guy,” he says. Like the other CAYLA alum, he said that Germer’s assistance in locating an internship that is a good fit made a lot of difference.

“Ask her what you’re looking for and she’ll help you set it up,” he says.

Alex Mitchiner agrees. Mitchiner knew she wanted to get into law as early as the sixth grade. While participating in the CAYLA program as a high school sophomore, she interned at Pisgah Legal Services, and has spent this summer interning with local defense attorney David Budd. These experiences have reaffirmed her desire to pursue a career as a domestic attorney.

“These internships provided me with a lot of experience and helped me in my direction,” she says. During the school year, Mitchiner works in the Information Technology Department of Western Carolina University, where she is preparing to begin her sophomore year.

“I like staying busy,” she says. “It keeps me well rounded and balanced.”

For current CAYLA high-school students, the extension program participants provide a glimpse at what’s coming after graduation. College, especially, is on their minds, and that is a place where CAYLA has seen real successes.

As Germer points out, research indicates that less than 20 percent of first generation college students actually stay in college and earn a degree. For CAYLA alumni, that rate is more than 80 percent.

“CAYLA opens doors for students; it is up to them to make the most of their summer experiences,” Germer says. And the college students are happy to pass along what the experiences they have gained. “It is magic to watch them as they pass along their expertise and talents to the next generation.”

The extension program also gives the older students a new perspective as they work with the younger groups, helping to organize and present events like June’s Me2We conference at UNC Asheville. Me2We is an opportunity for CAYLA and other high school students to hear about and discuss issues like race and gender and explore how we approach such topics in the past, present and future.

“I was really impressed,” Figaro says. “A lot of them were willing to get into talking about details. They are deep thinkers and they care about real issues.”

More than 100 high school students participated in the event, and CAYLA extension members worked on organization committees, facilitated talks and kept the program on schedule.

“I like that (Me2We) included more than just CAYLA kids,” said Martel Jackson, a rising junior at NC Central University. A business major focusing in marketing, Jackson interned through the CAYLA extension with the Asheville-based business incubator Mountain BizWorks, where, among other accomplishments, she planned a seminar for entrepreneurs within the Spanish speaking community.

Jackson said the younger CAYLA participants approached the college students with questions about both college and their professional experiences.

“I think they are curious and want to know what the experience is like,” she says. “But they are more prepared than they think they are.”

The CAYLA program, she said, has been a big boost in her desire to become a small business owner, stemming from her internships as a high school student with the UNC Asheville sports marketing department, A-B Tech’s daycare, the City of Asheville Purchasing Department and more.

“I feel like I gained opportunities,” she says. “It put me light years ahead.”

Click here for more on the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy.