Inside Stories

Career Week Speakers “A Slam Dunk” at Lowell High

by Jen Myers

Brian Yurasits is a first responder.

As a marine scientist at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, NH he spends his days responding to calls of sick, injured, and dead whales, dolphins, seals, and porpoises discovered along our local beaches.  He compares himself to the late Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, but for ocean animals.

He loves his job, but it was not an easy journey to get where he is today. Marine science is a very competitive field.

In college he studied environmental science and learned everything he could while working two jobs at a time – as a waiter, a bouncer, or selling solar panels door-to-door.

Prior to landing his current job, he applied for 100 other jobs. He heard back from four.

“I failed 96 times before I succeeded,” Yurasits said. “Never let it get you down that you didn’t get a job; keep moving forward.”

People and circumstances are constantly changing, he added. Never limit your options or give up on what you really love to do.

“I am 30-years-old and have worked seven or eight different jobs to be where I am today,” he said.

Do not be afraid to fail. Do not compare yourself to others or feel like you have to take a pre-designated path. Do not be afraid of change or adverse to pivoting when things are not going well.

These are just some of the important life lessons Lowell High School freshmen and juniors heard from more than 60 professionals from the community, including Yurasits, who came to speak to them during Project Learn’s Career Speaker Week. Over a four-day span, speakers visited 58 classrooms, impacting more than 1,250 students.

The speakers’ careers and experiences covered a wide range of industries: Engineering, Education, Arts, Human Resources, Banking, Entrepreneurship, Non-Profit Development, Marketing, Culinary Arts, Communications, Healthcare, Public Service, Science, and much more.

“Career Speaker Week was a slam dunk,” said Lowell High School Head of School Mike Fiato.  “It was a jam-packed week of speakers from so many interesting fields from right here in the Greater Lowell community. We are fortunate to have such an excellent community partner in Project Learn to help us expose students to the wide array of opportunities available after LHS.”

As the son of Nigerian immigrants, Bobby Tugbiyele, founder and CEO of The Leap Network, a healthcare personnel recruitment firm, grew up in a house where it was assumed you would either become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.

However, in his freshman year at Tufts University, Tugbiyele earned a C+ in chemistry his first semester; a grade that fell to a D- the second semester.

He quickly realized that maybe being a doctor wasn’t in his future. He did, however, excel in classes that required a lot of reading, writing, speaking, and analysis.

“I made a decision a long time ago that any skill I had I was going to try to be the best of it,” he said.  “I made a decision that whether I win or lose I was going to take a risk.”

He transferred to UMass Lowell and pivoted to studying political science and history.

Following graduation, he worked in human resources and recruitment for private companies and non-profit organizations until 2017 when he decided he no longer wanted to work for other people and took a big risk – a leap of faith – and started his own company.

His risk paid off that time, but not all do. In 2021, Tugbiyele ran for a seat on the Lowell City Council, spending months campaigning and working toward his goal. He came close, but did not win.

What happens when you take a risk and fail to reach your goal?

“We all give up on ourselves at some point,” he said. “The point is to get back up and to have people around you that can help you get back up. You have to keep moving forward.”

Project Learn Executive Director LZ Nunn spoke of continuing to move forward – even when you don’t know where you are headed.

She said she bounced around a bit in her career looking for her niche. She had jobs she enjoyed, like working for the International Institute helping to resettle refugees, but knew she was missing something.

She attended a leadership program where she was surprised to discover that she is a leader.

“If something feels kind of right and people tell you you are good at it, follow it,” she said, adding that after some more trial and error she finally landed at Project Learn because she realized “what I loved to do is work with people and make my own community better.”

Jen Bauer studied television and radio at Ithaca College and earned a master’s in film from Boston University. She never expected she would become a teacher.

But, one day, after having graduated from film school and traveled the festival circuit with her award-winning thesis film, NINE, the struggling artist received a phone call – from her mother.

“My mother has a very thick Lowell accent and she said ‘Jennifer there is a job open at Lowell High School and you should apply’,” Bauer recalled.

So, she did.

She spent the next 12 years teaching TV production at LHS.

“This weird thing happened where I fell in love with teaching and Lowell High School,” she said.

Looking to challenge herself, Bauer made the difficult decision to leave LHS for Middlesex Community College in 2014. Today, she is the Chair of Communications, Art, and Design at MCC.

Bauer told the students her biggest regret is having gone to a private school for her undergraduate studies and leaving there with $20,000 in student loan debt. She urged the LHS students to take advantage of the free Early College program offered at the school, through which high school students can take college classes and earn transferrable credits.

“You don’t get college for free anywhere else,” she said.

Bauer also advised them not to compare their journey or timeline to anyone else’s.

“Do what works best for you and you don’t HAVE to do anything,” she said, explaining that not everyone is cut out for the traditional high school to college to career tract. There are many ways and paths toward building a successful and happy life.

Amanda Flores, an attorney at Gallagher & Cavanaugh in downtown Lowell, also encouraged the students to take advantage of college credits they can earn in high school.

“If you speak another language, take the AP (Advanced Placement) test to get college credit,” she said, explaining that as a Spanish-speaker she took that route.

Although the Leominster native always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, she thought she wanted to be an intellectual property attorney, so she started her college career studying engineering at UMass Lowell. She later switched to political science and legal studies and was focused on becoming a divorce lawyer.

It was through internships and job searches that exposed her to the day-to-day work of different types of law that led her to where she is today, practicing civil law focused on real estate.

“I am a problem solver and people pay me to solve their problems,” she said. “I love it.”

It is okay to not know what you want to do and it is important to explore different paths, said Jacob Kaminsky, legislative aide to State Rep. Vanna Howard.

A 2021 graduate of UMass Amherst, where he studied political science ad legal studies, Kaminsky went home to Chelmsford after graduation in the midst of a pandemic, unsure of his future. He landed an internship in then-Lowell Mayor John Leahy’s office, which opened his eyes to the importance of local government and introduced him to many people.

He later interned for Rep. Howard, before taking a job with Rep. Marcos Devers of Lawrence and then returning to Howard’s office as her full-time aide.

Kaminsky advised the students that Lowell is a great place to be if you are unsure of what you want to do.

“Three are a lot of non-profits that have open positions where you can work or volunteer with little or no experience,” he said.  “It’s a really good way to broaden your horizons and meet people if you don’t know what you want to do.”

Kaminsky’s boss, Rep. Vanna Howard, who came to the United States as a child escaping the Cambodian genocide, has overcome many obstacles in her personal and professional lives, but kept moving forward and doing what she knew was right.

She worked as an advocate for victims in both the Middlesex and Suffolk County District Attorney’s offices, and spent 11 years working for Congresswoman Niki Tsongas. Following Tsongas’ retirement, Howard went to work at the Lowell Community Health Center.

In addition to her day jobs, Howard sat on more than a dozen non-profit boards and was never afraid to get her hands dirty for a good cause, whether it was building a community garden with Mill City Grows or cleaning up trash on the side of the road.

“Get engaged in the community, volunteer art a school, church or non-profit and learn more about the issues that affect the community every day,” Howard said. “It is a good way to learn your passion.”

What is her passion? Helping people.

What was her obvious next step? Running for office.

But it was not as easy as she expected. It was the spring of 2020 and she was ready to take on long-time incumbent State Rep. Dave Nangle. Many of the people she called about her potential campaign tried to discourage her.

“You’re a woman don’t waste your summer; it’s a boys’ club in Lowell. Don’t run for office,” she recalled being told in call after call.

Yet, she persisted.

“I had to earn every vote even though I have lived and worked here for three decades,” Howard said, marveling at how those who did support her came out in droves – she had more than 300 campaign volunteers in the height of a pandemic. “The community was seeking change and I won.”

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