Career Conversations offer first step in continuum of work-based learning opportunities

February 15, 2018
NIEHS biologist Mercedes Arana and HR consultant Carolyn Lyons discuss their career paths with students at Hillside High School.

Mercedes Arana did not live in the best neighborhood growing up in Miami, did not go to a great school, and was not from a highly educated family. But with the encouragement and guidance of some key teachers and counselors in her life, she earned a Ph.D. and is now a biologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park.

Carolyn Lyons didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life while growing up in Durham, had no real role models in her family or neighborhood and knew no one with an academic background. But she found role models in high school teachers and counselors and took advantage of their support. She got her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MBA from Elon College, and today she is a successful independent human resources consultant and certified life advice coach.

Both women spoke to students at Hillside High School in Durham on Feb. 15 as part of the Durham Public Schools Career and Technical Education (CTE) Career Conversations Program, part of a continuum of work-based learning opportunities under development by CTE with Made in Durham partners to expose Durham’s young people to careers and help them get work experience – key activities for preparing them for careers and building Durham’s talent pipeline.

Career Conversations, launched this year, offers exposure to a variety of employment sectors through monthly guest speaker panels offered at Durham’s five comprehensive high schools. Sectors include agriculture, food and natural resources; business and public administration; Information technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math); hospitality and tourism; skilled trades and advanced manufacturing. The February panel at Hillside represented careers in health and human services.

Made in Durham partners are developing a continuum of activities that guide students from awareness to careers.

“Anyone can do it.”

Arana said she has a passion for bringing science to the community.

“I wish I’d had this sort of thing when I was growing up,” she said. “Kids often don’t consider science careers because they don’t know enough about them.”

Arana shared her career path story, and demonstrated the use of a pipette, a laboratory tool used for measuring and transporting small amounts of liquid. She discussed how environmental factors may or may not play a role in increasing numbers of people with asthma and allergies, as well as other aspects of her work. She also told students if she could do it, anyone could.

“I want them to know that even if they don’t have a lot of obvious advantages, there are ways to accomplish what you want,” said Arana. “At times my climb seemed impossible.” But she stuck with it and achieved her goals.

Lyons discussed her path to a job that really suits her.

“I feel like I can lend perspective to these young people and help them start thinking about how to align their personal interests with career decisions,” she said.

Lyons shared with students the importance and interconnectedness of human resources in many aspects of a company, and how that aligned with her desire to help people by finding solutions to problems and designing beneficial systems for employers and their workers.

Both women encouraged students to pay attention to their strengths, think about what they want, and take advantage of every opportunity that came their way by listening to teachers and counselors and participating in career opportunity programs.

“Stay in touch with everyone you meet along the way,” said Lyons. “People will help you if you show interest and present yourself in a positive way.”

Panels provide insight

Hillside junior Jeremiha Wilson said she is interested in a career in horticulture or a technical career, but feels all the Career Conversation panels offer benefits to students.

“Good conversations can open up a lot of options and ideas you might not have thought about on your own,” he said.

Senior Destinee Coates is planning to attend Durham Technical Community College for two years after graduation with hopes of transferring to a four-year degree program.

“It’s good to be thinking about different careers and to learn about what to expect,” she said.
Businesses interested in signing up to speak on a Career Conversation panel can contact CTE Lead Workforce Coordinator Ondrea Austin at (919) 560-3858 or, or sign up for a panel slot online.


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Made in Durham is a community partnership of educators, business, government, youth-serving nonprofits and young people mobilized around a shared vision that all of Durham’s youth will complete high school and a post-secondary credential and begin a rewarding career by the age of 25.
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