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Esko future job seekers encouraged to 'Imagine It!'

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Home school student and current Esko senior Marisa Shady had enough credits to graduate by the time she was in 10th grade. She's a four-sport athlete, a member of the National Honor Society and volunteers with North Country R.I.D.E. And yet, she'd never had a job interview - until Tuesday.

"I've had jobs before," Shady acknowledged, "but I never had to go through a job interview in order to get them."

It might have been a bit intimidating, therefore, to find herself seated in front of a panel of executives from three of the region's top employers. Dressed in a tailored red jacket and black dress pants, with hair and makeup carefully groomed, Shady walked into the small room just off the school library with a quiet aura of confidence nonetheless. And after a few introductory remarks, the panel of employers got down to business.

The interview was part of Esko High School's 19th annual Imagine It! program, conducted in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. For two days this week, some 100 students were paired up with representatives from 35 businesses to conduct practice job interviews to equip the students for life and the world of work.

Prior to participating in the interviews, the students were asked to examine their skills, match them to the needs of their chosen occupations and prepare cover letters and resumes, much the same as they would if they were out seeking an actual job.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, each was assigned to one or more professionals in their future career field for the actual interviews. The interview sessions were followed by an evaluation period, in which the business representatives talked with each student about his or her strengths and weaknesses.

At the conclusion of his interview, senior Brian Johnson seemed both relaxed and relieved as he waited outside the door before his evaluation.

"I thought it went pretty well," he said modestly - and then moved on to discuss college plans and pharmacy schools with Career Center Coordinator Joyce Bergstedt, who had stopped by to check on the progress of the interviews.

He had little to worry about. The panel gave Johnson high marks for his resume and interview, praising his poise, organization, research on career placement at prospective colleges and the use of personal examples when responding to questions.

Christina Schowalter, St. Louis County human resources specialist, gave Johnson some pointers on how to improve his resume by moving his employment record and education to the top and placing his skills and qualifications at the bottom.

When Johnson was given the opportunity to ask the interview panel questions, he responded with a half-smile and said, "How do I look?"

Panel members said the jacket, dress shirt and tie he wore were the appropriate choice for the type of job interview he might anticipate when entering his career field and congratulated him on his appearance.

When Shady's turn came, Schowalter started by asking Shady to present a brief profile of herself. Shady explained that she started reading at an early age so her mother decided to begin her education by home schooling her. As it turned out, Shady continued to be home schooled all the way through 10th grade, by which time she had earned enough credits to graduate from high school. Instead, her family determined that she should be exposed to a wide variety of experiences in order to become a well-rounded individual before she went on to college. She then transferred to Esko High School in order to finish out her last two years in the sports programs she was involved in and get a head start on her college credits through the Post-Secondary Education Option (PSEO). By the time Shady graduates this spring, she will have earned 50 college credits and be on track to graduate from college in three years.

Esa Ojala of Essentia Health's human resources department, questioned Shady about the skills or qualifications she possesses in order to be successful in her chosen field of nursing. Shady replied that she has a "really positive" attitude in life, an asset she feels is crucial in succeeding in nursing. She said she also has developed leadership skills at a young age, serving as captain on the high school basketball team and learning from older leaders.

"I believe I have developed into a good team player and consider myself to be coachable as well," said Shady, "both of which I believe are important in nursing."

Sharon Manns, a nurse with Sappi Fine Paper in Cloquet, inquired about Shady's college plans. Shady told the panel that she has earned a full ride scholarship at South Dakota State in Brookings, where she plans to participate in sports and pursue a bachelor's degree in registered nursing, with a possible co-major or minor in Spanish. Manns asked, "Why Spanish?"

"I feel Spanish would offer me a wider range of job opportunities," said Shady. "It is growing fast as a language in this country, and it would open doors for many places where I might want to work."

More questions followed, regarding how Shady would deal with a job situation she wasn't happy about - "You have to realize you can't always fix it and sometimes you have to rethink it or realize it might be due to a misunderstanding or miscommunication"; what she would do if her teammates were unhappy and not putting forth the effort the team deserves - "I would take them aside and ask if something is wrong that needs to be fixed, such as problems at home, and encourage them to try to leave those problems outside the gym and focus on productive practices"; and what she perceives her strengths to be - "I think I'm easy to get along with, competitive and give 100 percent to all I do"- as well as her weaknesses - "Sometimes I'm too much of a people pleaser and it backfires on me."

Manns questioned how Shady has been able to devote adequate attention to all the many things she is involved in.

"I have to plan ahead of time," said Shady. "I had to learn time management very early on in sports. In the fall, I'm in both cross country and soccer. My day begins at 5:30 a.m. and is very tightly scheduled after that. A coach or teacher doesn't exactly appreciate tardiness, so I've never been tardy and I am seldom absent from school."

The interview portion of the session concluded with Shady being given an opportunity to ask questions of the panel. One of her questions regarded what qualities professionals in the medical community look for in an employee.

"Compassion," said Ojala. "If you don't have that, I won't even be interested in you. You have to want to be there to help patients."

Shady responded by saying she believes she possesses that quality, since she has witnessed her grandmother and her father go through numerous health crises and tried to help support them. She said the experience has left her with a desire to work in the medical field and help others.

"I realize it's going to be hard work," Shady acknowledged. "If I wasn't OK with that I wouldn't be interested in it. I believe nursing is what I'm called to do."

And despite Shady's comparative inexperience with the job interview process, she came through with flying colors. The panel praised her for her confidence, eye contact, motivation and the real life examples she gave, and they encouraged her to follow the plan she already has set forth for herself.

"You hear so many bad things about kids today," said Mann following the interview. "But when you see kids like the ones we've seen here today, you realize there are actually a lot of really good things about them."