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Just a few years ago, I was grappling with issues of homelessness, substance abuse and incarceration.

Today, I have a full-time job as a machine operator at Fastener Innovation Technology, where I support the setup and calibration for their heading machines. Our operations form the heads on screws and fasteners with the precision needed to meet the specifications of the aerospace and defense industries.

I am where I am now because of an internship opportunity through Compton College, and because Los Angeles County Social Services and Compton College’s education programs created a pathway that allowed me to achieve a better life for myself and my family.  More public-private partnerships like this are needed to address the various situations and challenges that we as students must overcome.

My trajectory to and through higher education was not linear. My parents immigrated to the U.S.  from Mexico and settled in East Los Angeles, where I was raised for most of my life. My parents did not go to college and were not familiar with California’s complex higher education system.

Jairo Salgado at his graduation from Compton College at Dignity Health Sports Park in California with his teacher Michel VanOverbeck. Credit: Image provided by Jairo Salgado

My first try at college classes came shortly after I earned my GED diploma. I was interested in mechanical engineering and physics, but the cost was a huge barrier, as it is for many students, and I left after a semester. The following years, I worked low-wage jobs to try to make ends meet, and I ultimately fell into drug dependency and homelessness.

I had become a father to two beautiful children, but given my struggles at the time they were born, they were placed in foster care with my mom and sister.

My turnaround came last year after completing a rehabilitation program. My county social worker recommended a certificate program in machine tool technology, given my interest in engineering.

While I didn’t yet have a vision for my career path, I knew college could help lead to better job opportunities and a better future for my kids. I didn’t want to fall back into the same patterns from before, and I wanted to set the foundation for a different trajectory for my children. The social worker connected me with the program at Compton College and counselors who worked with Los Angeles County’s Social Services and various assistance programs.

I received support when applying for financial aid, for basic needs and for broadband access and a laptop for my program.

Having this guidance in navigating the information, various systems and processes took a lot of the weight off my shoulders and made my return to college rather seamless. It allowed me to focus on my college and career goals and not on figuring out how to scrape by.

Once I got into the machine tool technology program, I fell in love with it. My teacher, Mr. VanOverbeck, was amazing, and his teaching assistant Edgar helped me apply for benefit programs that I hadn’t yet signed up for. Mr. V showed me the many intricate possibilities of machine tool work, and I gained expertise through hands-on experience operating various machinery. It was great to see all the things you can make, and after the first class, I just wanted to learn more. 

The college also had established partnerships with employers in the field, and I was presented with the internship opportunity that led to my current job. Without that, I wouldn’t have known where to start for a machinist job.

I knew college could help lead to better job opportunities and a better future for my kids.

Now, with stable income, I have secure housing, am able to pay my bills on time and, most importantly, I can be there for my children. Soon, I’ll be working toward an associate degree as a machinist, so I can gain further proficiency in this career.

When I reflect on how I got to where I am now, it was through the alignment of social services, employers and a higher education institution — and their shared culture of supporting the whole student.

Compton College’s partnership connected a higher education opportunity for me with an actual job, something I hope surrounding community colleges can do with shared resources and partnerships. With such coordinated efforts, many more students like me — and their families and communities — can find their way to prosperity.

Jairo Salgado is a machine operator at Fastener Innovation Technology and a Compton College graduate who earned his Computer Numerical Control Machine Operator Certificate of Achievement (COA) and his Machinist COA this summer.

This story about college internships was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, a research nonprofit focused on higher education and workforce policy. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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