“The Declaration of Independence,” West New York Middle School Principal Israel Rodriguez announced to an auditorium full of eighth graders, “grants us life, liberty, and the pursuit – the pursuit – of happiness. You have to go get it, and you have to sweat it.”
Perhaps eighth grade may seem a little early for kids to be planning out their professional lives that lie relatively far in the future. Rodriguez would disagree. Thirty-five presenters donated their time to the middle school’s third annual career fair early morning on May 9, each bringing the expertise over a broad range of occupations to the students for perusal and discussion.
“The goal is to expose the children to the various careers they might not have otherwise had the opportunity to see,” event co-coordinator Rosina Muti said during a brief moment of repose before the event kicked into full gear. “There are many adults who don’t know what they want to do, so I tell them as kids with ideas, they become professional students. It is never too early to start making a plan.”
“If you have a goal, you can get anything you want, and I am proof of that.” – Dr. Felix Roque
“It’s the same speech I give kids when they get in trouble,” Rodriguez told the assembly. “What’s your plan? If you don’t know, you become somebody else’s plan, you don’t make your own decisions, and you don’t get what you want. How will you be happy if you don’t get what you want?”
The student perspective
Jessica Lopez was excited to speak with both the visiting Federal Bureau of Investigations agent and psychiatrist because “I want to make a life out of making people feel better about themselves,” she said. “Agents investigate crimes and make people’s lives better, in my opinion.”
Her friend Ariana Amonte had similar ideas for her future, but had her sights set on the law field. “Lawyers help give people second chances,” she explained. “I’m excited today because so many people are here to inspire students and help them get a better idea of what they want to do and what they have to do to prepare before high school.”
After the assembly, students moved on to the gymnasium and rotated between presenters’ tables during five 15 minute sessions, asking questions and advice from chefs, teachers, pharmacists, psychologists, and accountants alike. While three presentations were assigned to them (since, as a testament to youth, a disproportionate number of kids would have otherwise overwhelmed the F.B.I. agent and the school’s resident chef Kim Gray), they were allowed to choose two for themselves.
Kevin Mojica and Jonathan Cullen both chose to visit Chef Kim – because they love food, they said – and the visiting photographer.
“I love animals,” Cullen explained. He hopes to one day become either an animal photographer or an exotic animal veterinarian. “The career fair is great for kids to help them decide what we want for our future.”
“Every student has tremendous potential,” recruiter Carlomagno Ontaneda from New Jersey Institute of Technology explained. “It is important to intervene as early as possible so students know what they need to do to prepare for the future.”
A local perspective
West New York’s mayor, physician, and army colonel Felix Roque opened the assembly, clad in scrubs, before beginning his day in the operating room. For “just a kid from Cuba,” he said, he had to work hard, study hard, and plan hard to achieve professional success.
Roque recalled his father studying at night until 3 a.m. to become a doctor, but in Cuba, even after he had succeeded, he still had to work in the sugar cane fields on weekends. The bleeding blisters on his hands on Monday morning made it difficult for Roque’s father to operate.
Eventually, they came to the states, and following his father’s example, Roque became an army colonel and a doctor, and eventually the mayor.
“One of the best rewards for all of the hard work it took to get me here is that I get to help people,” he said, “and our community needs a lot of help. Many people come to me looking for jobs, and many don’t even have a high school diploma, and I can’t help them.”
Roque went on to say that in a country in deficit whose unemployment programs are on the wane, it is more important than ever for students to study hard, find their focus, and persevere.
“If you have a goal, you can get anything you want, and I am proof of that,” he said. “It’s a great country. Take advantage of everything they give you here, because they’ll give you the keys to unlock that door to success.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org