Cristo Rey at 10: Corporate internships open hearts, minds and doors

February 15, 2017

By Erik Zygmont

TOWSON – With its open design, glass doors and modern décor, Whiting-Turner’s headquarters suite – floors 7, 8 and 9 in Hampton Plaza – is as much a showcase of the contracting company’s success as the place to pursue it.

An unfamiliar environment for the average high school student, it can be downright alien for incoming Cristo Rey Jesuit High School students, who come from families with considerable financial need.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said junior Kennedy Thomas, of the first time she walked into Whiting-Turner, whose high-profile projects include the Horseshoe Baltimore casino and the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore hotel in Fells Point, a recent venture of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank – another benefactor of Catholic schools.

“I wasn’t acclimated to the people, and I was young and not sure what to do,” Thomas said of that first visit, adding that, nevertheless, she “felt welcome.”

Ten years’ worth of feet have trod that mat. Founded in 2007, Cristo Rey Jesuit is celebrating the milestone anniversary this year.

From the start, Whiting-Turner has been a part of the Fells Point school’s signature mix of classroom learning and workplace experience.

Tim Regan, president and CEO of Whiting-Turner, said  his company made the substantial commitment for reasons that were “really quite simple.”

“Father John Swope came out and told us we had to do it,” Regan joked, referring to the shrewd Jesuit priest who served as founding president of Cristo Rey Jesuit from 2007 to 2015. “He explained the mission; he explained the model. One of our executives was familiar with it (from another Cristo Rey Jesuit school)  in Cleveland.”

Then under the leadership of Willard Hackerman, who had helmed the company since 1955 (he died in 2014), Whiting-Turner signed on, providing corporate internships to students according to the Cristo Rey model.

Currently in use at 32 network schools across the lower 48 states, the model – in which students take entry-level positions in local firms, partially financing their educations while learning hard and soft workplace skills – doesn’t only benefit the students.

Although Regan acknowledged there is an initial adjustment period, “It takes us no time at all to get them into very substantial and productive work alongside our full-time people.”

In a 2015 interview with the Catholic Review, Father Swope likened the process to surrounding a student with “strong scaffolding” at the outset, “and then you slowly remove that scaffolding to create resiliency and maturity.”

“We’re setting expectations right away,” expanded William Heiser, who succeeded Father Swope in 2015.

He added that such expectations go beyond the students’ corporate internships. “We make it clear to them that college is possible, and it’s not just for the middle class or the wealthy.”

Indeed, while no Cristo Rey Jesuit students fall into those categories, every one of its graduates has been accepted into a college.

Peyton Whitehead, a freshman at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, is gaining valuable professional experience interning with T. Rowe Price in Baltimore. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff

No exception on that front, Zhane Chase, 22, a member of the Cristo Rey class of 2012, will graduate from the University of Baltimore in May. Her path also shows how corporate internships can open doors – or in her case, hold them, at the firm for which she has interned since she was a high school sophomore.

“Zhane is just a special young lady,” said Regan, who at a Cristo Rey event a few years ago publicly offered her a full-time job in Whiting-Turner’s industry excellence department upon her college graduation. “She’s as solid as it gets. She’s honest, hardworking, and brings sunshine to any room.”

“I was elated,” said Chase, who grew up in Highlandtown, of her reaction to the offer. “I was relieved because it helped me know I would have a job when I was done school.”

The corporate internship program initially attracted her to Cristo Rey as she neared graduation from Archbishop Borders School, she recalled.
Fourteen-year-old Peyton Whitehead, a Cristo Rey Jesuit freshman from Catonsville, was similarly intrigued.

When she was accepted, she said, her parents were thrilled, “especially my mom – I think she wanted to come here more than I did.”

Like Thomas and Chase, she felt the jitters on her first day at her internship, in her case at the global investment firm T. Rowe Price in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

“It was like, ‘I’m just this little girl in a big workplace,’ ” she recalled. “It’s huge. There’s an escalator just to get to the first floor.”

Still, she was as prepared as she could be, thanks to Cristo Rey Jesuit’s Prep for Success program, which freshmen undergo in the weeks before the school year.

“I didn’t know how to shake a hand before Prep for Success,” Whitehead said. “Phone etiquette? I did not have it at all.”

Her newly-acquired soft skills complementing her natural ability with numbers – “They just come to me,” she said – Whitehead is excelling at T. Rowe Price and hopes to eventually become a lawyer.

Numbers would play a key role in that career, too, she insists: “I’ll have to count my money, of course.” 

Cristo Rey Facts:

2007: Year founded

348: Enrollment

120: Corporate sponsors

$7,500: Annual per-student tuition contribution by scholarship sponsors

$7,000: Amount students can earn toward tuition in corporate internships

$2,500: Maximum annual “family contribution” for freshmen toward tuition