How an Ordinary Experience Led me to Extraordinary Opportunity

A family friend helped me get my first job. At the age of sixteen, dressing sandwiches with a smile became my life. As often as I could, I would show up to work and learn everything I could about Subway. For every six-inch piece of bread; each customer was allotted three slices of cheese on their selection. I was to always upsell cookies at the end of the line and not forget that additional toppings cost extra.

In my teenage years, my mind was set on making something of myself. The path to get there was uncertain but the grit to succeed well intact. I would do my job well; I had to. I came from a single-parent household and watched my mother work multiple jobs as I grew up. As the age of adolescence passed, I needed to show I could pull my own weight. No longer would my wallet be reduced to minimal allowances but instead I would earn my own money. No more begging for cash or doing odd tasks for a few dollars. I wanted what every kid from humble beginnings wants: to provide and to make money.

But that wasn’t enough. One day an older gentlemen came into Subway. His suit was tailored and he had a car that I had only seen in commercials. He spoke of his business and a prospective deal he was working on. I looked down at my employee shirt, then back at him. At that moment, I knew there had to be more. I served him well but that moment plagued me for months. That man’s lifestyle was foreign to me. There was no example of people like him where I came from. The divide between the businessman and I was glaringly obvious. It’s the travesty that plagues our nation to this day. Football would be my way to achieve that sort of success. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way for many. One percent of student athletes in high school make it on the collegiate level; and one percent of collegiate athletes succeed to professional heights.

President Obama has called for our society to be the bridge for the young man l was. He calls for investments in first jobs for young people, and I urge America’s leading companies to lead that charge. Young people don’t only need jobs, they deserve hope and a glimpse of their future. I’ll never forget the moment at Subway where I first saw an example of what I could be — and the lasting effect it had on me.

There is a need for young people to be exposed to the professional environment. This experience provides hands-on, applicable learning that produces skills transferable to any career they choose to pursue later in life. They need to learn simple things like being on time, an understanding of workplace responsibility, and presentation training. Summer jobs provide a pathway to all of those skills, and more.

Russell Okung

Now that I’m in a position of leadership, I hired a young adult to work in my non-profit organization. He’s smart and intelligent, but extremely raw. What he lacks in skill, he makes up for in determination and will. I’m excited that I get to offer him exposure to a world he’s never experienced. Let’s commit ourselves to a future where young people are not bound by their socioeconomic status but instead extended an opportunity that will last a lifetime.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn