‘Aha’ possibilities await teens at career fair
By age 10, Rane Johnson-Stempson was cooking and doing the family’s bills.
If she fell short of an A, she says, her father would knock her around. By 14, when word finally went out that she needed help, she got it.
Two decades later, she’s the one who helps.
On Thursday, thanks to efforts by her and dozens of others, more than 4,500 high school students from throughout the metro area are expected to converge on the Oregon Convention Center for a careers fair.
For employers, it’s a chance to highlight Oregon’s job choices and earning potential. For students, it’s a chance to learn what kinds of schooling and training they need to land good jobs in such fields as health care, construction, metals manufacturing, arts and technology.
"This could be your ‘aha’ moment," Johnson-Stempson said of the third annual NW Youth Careers Expo. "If you don’t take this opportunity, you could be giving up the opportunity of a lifetime."
Drew Park, president and chief executive of Columbia Wire & Iron and one of the expo’s key organizers, said the gathering could help students see how their classes apply to their lives. "You may be able to find an answer here," he said.
Thanks to various teachers, mentors and counselors, Johnson-Stempson said, she went from a tough childhood to the life she has now at 31 — traveling the country as a technical field sales engagement manager for Microsoft. The Lake Oswego resident helped organize the expo’s technology panel of executives and others, who will share the pathways of their careers.
Her own story begins in Vietnam. During the fall of Saigon and while pregnant with Rane in 1975, her Vietnamese mother escaped with her U.S. Army husband and son. They settled in central Texas. Her mother mastered some English, but not enough to read or write. Rane said her late father was a heavy drinker who never seemed satisfied with anything she did.
"I needed to have straight As," she said. "In soccer I needed to score at least one goal in every game, otherwise he’d ground me and then hit me. And the same with gymnastics. . . . Same thing with grades. Same with my room.
". . . So I learned to be perfect in everything. . . . I was in almost every club you could think of, and the president of almost everything."
The turning point came after her family moved to Vancouver. It was her freshman year, and her high school team had just placed well in an academic decathlon. The awards ceremony ran late, and her father, who’d been waiting to give her a ride home, was fuming by the time she reached the truck.
She showed him the award, she said, hoping it would please him. Instead, she said, he started yelling. It was the first time she’d ever questioned his treatment of her and she argued back. Things escalated, she said, and he pushed her out of the truck. She said she hit the shoulder, rolling into the grass.
Though she didn’t tell anyone about what happened, a friend noticed her cuts and bruises at school the next day and told the principal. Soon afterward, she was in a group home, then foster care.
At age 14, she said, a judge emancipated her, allowing her to move in with her 21-year-old brother. She says she eventually forgave her father, whom she says suffered from alcoholism and Alzheimer’s; he died nearly two years ago.
Once on her own, she relied on a network of teachers, mentors and others to help her through.
She recalls, for instance, a career fair where she met an engineer who advised and encouraged her throughout her college years. With more than $150,000 in scholarships, she graduated from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania with degrees in mechanical engineering, and economics and finance.
She hooked up with SkillsUSA, a career technical-education organization, and she learned computer-aided drafting.
Four years ago, Johnson-Stempson joined Microsoft. Now she also sits on the education foundation of the Software Association of Oregon, the force behind the expo’s first technology panel, and looks forward to the fair.
"It’s the possibility," she said "of finding the mentor who could change your life."
Spencer Heinz: 503-221-8072; firstname.lastname@example.org