March 9, 2001

Sweetwater Proves It's No Longer a Man's World

By Yvette tenBerge

The energy in the audience of over 30 high school junior and senior girls changes abruptly. The sound of crumpling plastic wrap stops as they put away their juice boxes and granola bars, snacks that were handed out by teachers earlier in the morning. The low hum of whispering dies down almost completely. Many of the young, neatly dressed women lean forward, their mouths slightly ajar as their eyes become glued to the front of the room.

ROP Career Fair brought unique and exciting career opportunities before these young women.

These girls are not watching the latest episode of Friends, nor are they feasting their eyes on Madonna's newest video on MTV. Instead, they are listening to Valerie Houlihan, the Manager of NASSCO's (National Steel and Shipbuilding Company) Training and Development Department, as she tells them about Waterfront Academy, her company's uniquely designed, one-year academic program aimed at integrating academic studies with "real world" applications and workplace experience. "What we are looking for is attitude and motivation. We do not care as much about your grades. If you are anything like me when I was your age, you probably never pictured yourself building much of anything," says Ms. Houlihan as she surveys the group of teenagers, the majority of whose faces are neatly made-up and whose nails are freshly manicured. "I'm here to tell you not to be limited to considering careers based on what you think you might like. I want you to know that some of our top welders are girls." As she ends her remarks, hands shoot up all over the room, and the panel discussion at the second annual Non-Traditional Career Fair comes to life.

This year's event, sponsored by the Sweetwater School District's Career Awareness Center/Regional Occupational Program (ROP), was held on Tuesday, March 6th. In honor of Women's History Month, the Center invited over 200 female Sweetwater District, adult and high school ROP students to their 2nd Avenue office in Chula Vista. The Center's mission in holding this career fair was to expose their students to female business and industry representatives who currently work in traditionally male dominated fields. In so doing, they hope to reinforce the idea that virtually every career opportunity is available to people of both sexes.

"All women, regardless of their ethnicity, are more or less channeled into jobs that have been traditionally set aside for women. We wanted these girls to come and take a look at things outside of this [trend]. We want our young women to know that with education and training they can have a really rewarding career and a good, paying job. In no way are we here to encourage [these young women] to get a job and forget about school," says Paula Couture, Director of ROP and Special Sessions at Sweetwater School District and the organizer of the event. "But what a lot of people do not know is that many of these companies offer their employees job training as well as money to continue their education, something many families today might not be able to afford."

Among the female "trailblazers" like Ms. Houlihan who agreed to speak or who "manned" booths stocked with pamphlets, candy, stickers and applications, were trolley operators, Marines, police officers, financial analysts and firefighters. These women were flanked by a few of their male counterparts who dutifully answered questions and handed out fliers. The groups of young women tended to gravitate first to the booths that were more eye-catching or that were operated by uniformed individuals. Eventually, though, they visited the booths that were less visually exciting, but were representative of potentially more lucrative fields such as investment services.

Students like Beatrice Ramirez, a 16-year-old junior from Mar Vista High, was one of those students who seemed to embody everything for which the ROP department was looking. "I came to this program because I am confused [as to] what I would like to do. Everything I see I want to try, [in fact] I'm going to sign up for the NASSCO program today. I will go to see my counselor at lunch. I like things that get me moving, and I like to be different than everyone else," says Ms. Ramirez as she spots the San Diego Electrical Training Center booth and reaches across another student to grab a flier. "I want to do this, too. I want to do everything, and you know what? I know that I can handle [these jobs] because I can put up with anything."

If Ms. Couture and the other women running the Sweetwa-ter ROP program are concerned about the spirit of today's female teenagers, the attitude of young women like Janet Romanenko, a 16-year-old from Sweetwater High, should put them at ease. "I have always pictured myself working with something hands-on. Before this, I thought I wanted to be a cop, but after today, I think the program being offered by NASSCO and the show put on by the people who train police dogs were really interesting. All I know is that I am not interested in traditional jobs," says Ms. Romanenko, straining to see the police dog demonstration over the heads of a large group of girls. "I'm not interested [in working at these places] because of the men, but because of the challenge. I know I might struggle more, but I will be doing something unique that I want to do."

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