Pandemic impacts corporate internships at Cristo Rey schools

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A student walks to the front doors of the school building for Cristo Rey St. Martin de Porres College Prep in Waukegan on Feb. 13, 2018. The pandemic has altered Cristo Rey Network schools’ corporate internship program because many corporations are working remotely and cannot have students come in for internships. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The three Cristo Rey Network schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of corporate internships available to their students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lack of work for students is affecting both their education and the schools’ revenue.

Cristo Rey Network schools around the country operate on a unique model in which students receive a college-preparatory education and spend five, eight-hour days a month working at local corporations such as Abbot Laboratory and Wintrust Bank in the Chicago area, gaining valuable work experience and earning about 60 percent of their tuition.

With many corporate employees working remotely, fewer companies are able to hire the students.

Corporations sponsor students by paying $33,000 for an entry-level position staffed by four students. Fifty percent of a school’s revenue comes from the students’ earnings through the internships.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen, established by Fr. John Foley and the Jesuits, opened its doors in 1996. The Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network was formed in 2000 to replicate the success of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in other cities across the nation.

There are 37 Cristo Rey Network schools across the country, including Cristo Rey in Pilsen, Christ the King in Austin and Cristo Rey St. Martin de Porres in Waukegan.

The internship model has two major benefits, according to Elizabeth Goettl, president and CEO of Cristo Rey Network.

“First, it provides a sustainable financial model for a private Catholic college preparatory education for students of families of limited financial means who cannot afford to pay tuition or a lot of tuition,” she said. “Second, it provides this truly remarkable business experience that helps students envision the reason to go to college, that helps them to envision a future different from than perhaps what their parents had an opportunity to pursue.”

With many businesses having their employees work from home due to COVID-19, the schools have had to adjust their revenue goals for this school year.

“We have businesses who haven’t opened their doors yet, so our students can’t go back to work, or businesses who are laying their own staff off, so we’ve got to look at ways that we can sustain this model through this pandemic,” Goettl said.

They are asking their business partners to stay with the schools during this time and many are donating the money they would have paid for internships even though students can’t come to work.

The network is also promoting the idea that by supporting Cristo Rey students through internships, businesses can add social purpose to their organizations, something that might seem especially valuable as racial justice has moved to the forefront of the national discussions.

“Our work-study program really offers complimentary efforts towards these mutually desired outcomes because our students are about 98 percent non-white. Here is a tailor-made, ready-to-go program in which your business can engage, of course when the time is right,” Goettl said.

Cristo Rey St. Martin De Porres in Waukegan had 88 paid internships last year and has only 44 this year. Employers include the Walgreens corporate office, Abvee and Abbot Laboratory. Some companies have said that if the situation with the pandemic changes, they are happy to have the students come back to work.

Others, like Discover, are having the students work remotely. Discover came to the school to train the more than 20 students who work with them on how to work remotely and gave them all company laptops.

The school is financially healthy and can weather the financial storm, said principal Michael Odiotti, but the students are losing valuable experiences.

“I’m less worried about our seniors who have had three years of it than our freshmen who’ve never had this opportunity,” Odiotti said. “Our sophomores and juniors who had jobs last year have expressed how disappointed they are not to have jobs this year.”

The internships help students get out of their comfort zones and build social skills and comfort interacting with adults. Most of the students at Cristo Rey St. Martin de Porres are Black or Latino so they also learn how to navigate predominately white spaces, Odiotti said. It is one more avenue to help them succeed in life.

“I’ve seen so many kids who might struggle in the classroom, but you put them in the workplace and all of a sudden they are superstars. It just fits who they are,” he said.

For those who can’t go to an internship, the school is using the time to train them in Microsoft Office.

The internship program has a long-term impact on students and success in college. Sixty percent of the school’s 2013 graduates obtained their bachelor’s degree, which is much higher than the national average for students with the same background.

“If you talk to our alumni, they say it absolutely prepared them for college and working after,” Odiotti said.

The students are also adding value to the companies. Many of the companies hire the students for summer work and the money they earn then goes directly to the students.

“To me that shows the value,” Odiotti said. “They wouldn’t be hiring our kids beyond the school contract if they didn’t think they were adding value. I think that when companies do have our kids, they realize it’s a huge added value.”


  • catholic schools
  • cristo rey network

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