HKS Partnership with Cristo Rey Dallas Prep Exposes High Schoolers to More Career Choices
By the time Kenndrick Mendieta reached his senior year at Cristo Rey Dallas College Prep, he had worked for a major real estate firm and a Mercedes-Benz dealership through his school’s ambitious Corporate Work-Study Program. In the fall of 2018, he got one final corporate assignment: HKS, headquartered in downtown Dallas.
Mendieta, whose father works in construction, had expressed interest in architecture and was excited about the placement. He joined the IT department and, a few days into the job, shadowed an IT specialist who wandered into the sports practice to return a computer. That’s when Mendieta saw a blown-up rendering of the new Texas Rangers ballpark in Arlington, Globe Life Field, which was under construction at the time. He stared at it every time he walked to the sports practice.
“I thought, ‘Wow, is this really happening?’” he recalled.
While working for HKS, Mendieta toured the exterior of Globe Life Field and explored the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium — which were both designed by HKS — and learned to use professional architectural design software Revit, building a personal design portfolio.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Corporate Work-Study Program to go remote for the time being, HKS remains committed to its partnership with Cristo Rey Dallas, which started in 2016. The nonprofit Catholic high school in the Dallas neighborhood of Pleasant Grove serves a diverse student body whose families have limited financial means. As part of the Corporate Work-Study Program, participating companies in the Dallas area pay Cristo Rey for students’ work to cover part of their annual tuition. HKS pairs students with employees across departments to acquaint them with the design field, along with other areas that may interest them, such as accounting and technology.
The four students assigned to HKS every year come to the office once or twice a week, helping with clerical tasks and other assignments from their supervisors. Executive assistant Amy Schwiening leads the supervisors and coordinates students’ schedules to help them navigate the firm. While clerical tasks are important, HKS staffers involved in the program gathered a couple of years ago to discuss how to improve students’ learning experiences at work. Schwiening said she and her colleagues imagined what they would have wanted from such a work-study opportunity in high school, and they agreed that they would have benefited from additional exposure to the many facets of an architectural firm. Architectural designer Margarita Aguirre developed an architecture syllabus that teaches students how to use Revit and sharpens their spatial reasoning, which they practice on personal projects to build their own portfolios.
“If we don’t invest in these young people, having this opportunity with four students from Cristo Rey, we’re wasting time,” said Aguirre, who works in the sports practice. “Whether they study architecture or not, they’re the future.”
HKS has deepened its participation in Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work-Study Program over the years. In the summer of 2019, the firm hosted a corporate tour for Cristo Rey’s rising freshman class to cap their VIVA orientation program, which teaches kids basic skills to prepare them for the workplace. HKS’ student workers talked to their schoolmates about their workplace experiences, joined by Aguirre, Chief Financial Officer Sam Mudro and Chief Process Officer Bernita Beikmann, who described their professional journeys. HKS employees have also participated in panels at the invitation of Cristo Rey to share insights with other corporate partners and to talk about the importance of investing in diversity and inclusion initiatives. This fall, HKS volunteered its professional development team to conduct a strengths assessment for Cristo Rey’s freshmen to help them discover their talents. Schwiening also coordinated a school supply drive that raised $2,000 worth of items for Cristo Rey students.
“HKS Dallas has been a partner of Cristo Rey Dallas since 2016, and every year their commitment has grown stronger,” said Lucero Piña, Cristo Rey’s external partnership manager “In 2016, they gave Cristo Rey Dallas students an opportunity and welcomed two freshmen and two sophomores into their Dallas office. Since, the firm has been responsible for the students’ exposure to Unreal Engine [software], supported and mentored two graduates of Cristo Rey Dallas (and counting), hosted students and their families to personalized tours of the AT&T Stadium, welcomed and inspired 145 incoming freshman students to their offices and designated Cristo Rey Dallas as their school supply drive beneficiary in 2020. The list could go on and on.”
She added: “HKS makes it clear that they are invested in our youth’s future, the Dallas community and are dedicated to making a difference in Southeast Dallas.”
Schwiening and her colleagues who team up with the Cristo Rey student-workers are evangelists for the Corporate Work-Study Program’s success in building relationships and exposing teens to additional career choices.
“I want these kids to have something that I didn’t have,” Schwiening said. “These kids are so incredible. I would love to have had something like this when I was their age.”
She said she comes to work every day wanting to be better for the students under her watch.
“I’m privileged that I have this opportunity to work with them. I feel so rewarded at the end of the day.”
We checked in with some of our current and former Cristo Rey student workers to ask about their HKS journey:
“I want these kids to have something that I didn’t have,” she said. “The kids are so incredible. I would have loved to have something like this when I was their age.”
Mendieta, 19, is a sophomore at the University of North Texas in Denton, where he is studying construction management. He is the first in his family to go to college.
His HKS stint began with the IT department in the basement of the firm’s headquarters, or “the cave,” as staffers call it. He helped the IT team install software and fix bugs in designers’ computers.
Mendieta later switched to the sports practice, where he sat near Aguirre and began Revit lessons. He made some mistakes at first, such as using a floor for a roof, but became more confident as the lessons progressed.
“I picked it up pretty fast, I’m not going to lie,” Mendieta said. “Every time I talked to other students, I would ask them, ‘Where you at?’ or ‘How are you doing on this certain type of project?’ We would compete sometimes.
“I liked it. I loved it, actually. It worked my brain.”
HKS designers checked on his work, sometimes giving praise and other times providing constructive criticism. One designer offered advice on Mendieta’s college application.
Mendieta joined his classmates on a tour of HKS’ sports venues in Arlington and was struck by the enormity of Globe Life Field. After starting at HKS, he grew even more curious about buildings. Mendieta spent his 30-minute light-rail commute to work staring out the window, studying the buildings along the route.
For his final Revit project, he chose to design his own house, which he hopes to build with his father on a tract his parents own. He said he received guidance from a lot of people at HKS, who helped him visualize the interiors and be more precise with his plans.
“HKS gave me a hands-on opportunity to see everything,” said Mendieta, who is still considering a future career in architecture. “Like an image someone has in their head, how to get it on paper.”
Cano graduated from Cristo Rey in the spring of 2020. She’s a freshman studying political science and English at University of Dallas in Irving. Like Mendieta, she’s the first in her family to attend a university.
Cano spent all four high school years in HKS’ work-study program. As a freshman, she wasn’t sure what career path she wanted to pursue. She helped the human resources department with filing and scanning and provided support to the accounting and marketing departments.
Cristo Rey sent period surveys to students to track their work-study progress and ask if they wanted a change.
“I never really wanted something new,” Cano said. “I really liked HKS and the fact that we were constantly getting switched out of departments. I was getting different experiences of the workplace. I was able to see what HR did, what marketing did, what administration did.”
During her junior year, Cano began her design lessons with Aguirre and became acquainted with the architectural side of the business. She sat in meetings about Globe Life Field, a project in which Aguirre was a member of the design team.
Cano said she also began interacting more with other Cristo Rey student workers at HKS. Their Revit curriculum led to friendly competition.
“It was a source of motivation, because if one of us was behind, we wanted to catch up as far along as the other ones,” Cano said.
The fact that Cano and her fellow HKS student workers were getting hands-on architectural training was a source of pride among the group and elicited jealousy among other schoolmates. Cano recalled that some of her friends teasingly asked her: “Carla, can you say you don’t want to go next year, so we can take your spot?”
When Cano and her Cristo Rey schoolmates visited Globe Life Field and AT&T Stadium with the HKS Cristo Rey supervisors in 2019,, they also took the teens to the architecture school at University of Texas at Arlington so they could experience a college campus.
Though Cano ultimately chose to study liberal arts, she said that her HKS experience opened her eyes to the world of possibilities in architecture.
“Starting Revit opened up that creativity flow,” she said. “I’ve always been into liberal arts like English because when you read a book, everybody is going to interpret a book differently. When we started doing Revit, I started to see Kenndrick’s house looks like this, my house looks like this, Diego’s looks like this and Edward’s looks like this. We all had the same plan, but they still look different. It started to get my brain gears going.”
Covarrubias is a senior at Cristo Rey who has been working with HKS since his freshman year.
Then, his dream was to become a movie director. During a Cristo Rey summer training program, Covarrubias discovered he was good at Microsoft Excel. He was placed with HKS’ accounting department, where his supervisor taught him to analyze large data sets through Excel functions such as pivot tables.
Covarrubias recalled being nervous during his first couple of weeks at HKS. He thought he would have to address everyone formally and that his colleagues would be dismissive of him because he was a teen. But his HKS coworkers put him at ease. He found himself cracking jokes with the accounting team.
“They didn’t treat me like a kid,” he said. “They treated me like part of the group.”
In his junior year, Covarrubias met Aguirre in the sports practice. He started tagging along to Monday meetings about Globe Life Field. And he became acquainted with Unreal Engine, a software application for building video games that HKS used to create an interactive model of the ballpark.
Inspired by the work of the sports practice and with support from HKS staff, Covarrubias taught himself how to use Unreal Engine to create his own video game.
“I would Google certain things, like how to create a spread, how to create a background, stuff like that,” he said. “I already knew how to use Photoshop, so I would create my backgrounds and I would export to them to Unreal Engine.”
Covarrubias is setting his sights on a business degree from the University of North Texas. He now envisions a future as an entrepreneur who designs his own skateboards, graphics and apparel.
“Based on all the stuff I’ve learned, it’s really changed my entire career path,” he said.
Covarrubias credits HKS with giving him the confidence to navigate professional environments. For instance, he had to work fast and with precision when completing his accounting tasks. He also grew close to an HKS colleague, approaching him for personal advice.
“Never be afraid to ask questions,” Covarrubias said. “Never be afraid to be you.”
Lujano is a sophomore at Cristo Rey and is in her second year at HKS. She’s still figuring out what career path she wants to take. Over the years, she’s considered whether to study computer science or become a doctor. The latter has been on her mind because of the coronavirus pandemic.
During her freshman year, Lujano was assigned to the structural engineering department and helped with filing and other clerical duties. She toyed a bit with Unreal Engine and learned how to create building models using Revit.
“At first I was really scared because I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, but as I went on, I got used to it, and it became easier,” she said.
One of her personal projects was to create a floor plan, design the interiors of the building and pick wall colors.
“You can create whatever you can think of,” she said. “You can use those plans and designs to create an actual house.”
Though she is working remotely this year, Lujano said she hopes to keep learning new skills. She encouraged other Cristo Rey students to speak up and build relationships with their supervisors, something she said was difficult for her at first because she’s shy.
Lujano said there was a time when she wasn’t even comfortable placing an order at a restaurant and would defer to her mother, but her workplace experience has pushed her to be more assertive.
“Whenever I first started going to HKS, I was scared just talking to new people,” she said. “When I started meeting my supervisors, I had to talk more and be more open.”