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A Program with H.E.A.R.T.

On-Campus Internships Building Social, Professional Skills for Houstonians


By Mike Emery

This semester, a group of Houstonians have been embedded in the campus landscape at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD). They aren’t officially enrolled at the institution, but like UHD’s students, they are learning valuable lessons that are helping them grow personally and professionally.

Through a partnership between UHD’s College of Public Service and the Housing, Entrepreneurship and Readiness Training (H.E.A.R.T.) Program, a group of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are enrolled as Continuing Education Students and working in various University departments and offices. These 150-hour internships are part of a three-semester initiative made possible by a $1.1 million grant from the Gulf Coast Workforce Board.

“We’re glad we can work with UHD to expand the programs H.E.A.R.T. offers to our trainees," said Jane Borochoff, executive director of the H.E.A.R.T. Program. "Real world training opportunities and experiences like these are so valuable for our trainees as they progress towards full-time employment.”

The UHD-H.E.A.R.T. collaboration kicked off in fall 2018 with two cohorts of Houston-area adults attending classes at UHD and being mentored by the University’s students. This semester, the first cohort of H.E.A.R.T. participants are applying what they learned from these courses to on-campus internships, which provide vocational and administrative training. They also help them develop socialization and teamwork skills.

Douglas Pleitez is one of the 30 H.E.A.R.T. participants who attended classes and is now working on campus. He works with UHD’s facilities team as a painter, helping paint campus walls, stairwells and other areas. He said that the program has been beneficial in helping him learn to work as part of a team.

“I’ve learned communication skills,” Pleitez said. “And, I’ve learned to respect other people.”

Pleitez’ fellow H.E.A.R.T. interns share his enthusiasm for working on campus. Adrianne Clark is assigned to UHD’s Information Technology department, where she helps coordinate work tickets. She hopes to continue working with computers after departing the University. Meanwhile, Zhi Naki "Kiki" James works in the Student Activities Lounge, where she keeps the pool tables tidy, works the front desk and updates flyers and posters hanging on walls.

“My favorite part of working here is working at events and meeting new people,” James said.

Tremaine Kwasikpui, director of Student Activities, is James’ supervisor. In addition to James, two other H.E.A.R.T. participants also are working for him. He said that UHD’s students also gain from the experience of working with … and learning from … these interns.

“Our students learn about working with people other than their peers and supervisors,” Kwasikpui said. “This experience helps them understand how to collaborate with those who might communicate differently from themselves. And the H.E.A.R.T. interns are helping set examples for our students. They’re here every day, on time and ready to handle whatever is assigned to them. It’s a wonderful partnership.”

Other interns are gaining administrative experience in UHD offices (including the Office of the President) and learning AutoCAD in UHD’s Engineering Department.

“The interns are refining generalizable skills in communication, organization and teamwork as well as working independently or in small groups on projects and initiatives in the area where they are employed,” said College of Public Service Interim Dean, Dr. Leigh Van Horn. “A program such as this which includes internships and prepares individuals for meaningful professions is philosophically aligned with the approach we have in the College of Public Service in our degree programs in Criminal Justice, Social Work, and Urban Teacher Education.”

Student mentors from UHD’s College of Public Service guide the interns when they’re not on the job. Marisol Orozco is a social work major who is mentoring students this semester. The experience, she said, has helped her and other students better understand underserved members of the city’s population.

For Orozco and her fellow mentors, it’s been rewarding to see these H.E.A.R.T. interns grow over the past semester. Working as part of a team and learning skills has instilled confidence in them, she added.

“They were a little shy and quiet when they arrived here,” Orozco said. “Now, there’s a big difference in how they walk, how they talk, how they hold themselves up when they are on campus.”

The UHD-H.E.A.R.T. internships will run through May. At the conclusion of the spring semester, H.E.A.R.T. interns will participate in off-campus externships, then return for a two-week capstone course. After completing that class, they will graduate with a Continuing Education Certificate. Other cohorts of H.E.A.R.T. participants are set to complete their coursework on campus and receive a certificate in the fall as well. More than 70 interns/participants are taking part in this program.

“For many of these H.E.A.R.T. participants, high school was the last stop … until this program,” Orozco said. “Because of UHD, H.E.A.R.T. and the Gulf Coast Workforce Board, they had the opportunity to have a college experience, to make friends with students, and learn on a university campus. This program provided them with the college experience they saw on TV or in movies, and soon, they’ll apply what they learned here to jobs in our community.”

The H.E.A.R.T. Program (Housing, Entrepreneurship And Readiness Training) is the signature program of the Houston-area 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Educational Programs Inspiring Communities, Inc. For over 13 years, H.E.A.R.T. has provided continuing education, job training and employment programs to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Trainees from the H.E.A.R.T. program successfully work in a variety of jobs, including stocking and servicing vending machines, serving concessions at Houston Rockets basketball games, making pizza with Papa John’s, to name a few. H.E.A.R.T. has been recognized as one of the Mayor’s Proud Partners and has received the Leadership in Action Award for Leadership Houston. For more on H.E.A.R.T., visit www.heartprogram.org

The Gulf Coast Workforce Board and its operating affiliate Workforce Solutions are the public workforce system in the 13-county Houston-Galveston region – helping employers meet human resource needs and area residents build careers so both can better compete in the global economy. The Gulf Coast Workforce Board sets the strategic direction for our region’s workforce system and steers Workforce Solutions to help keep the region a great place to do business, work and live. With 26 full-time and 10 part-time offices, Workforce Solutions serves over 25,000 employers and over 400,000 individuals annually. To learn more, visit www.wrksolutions.com.


About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.