Alumni Spotlight: Celina To

Celina To became a member of Enterprise for Youth in 2010, when she participated in the Pathways Career Ahead program. After Pathways, Celina obtained an internship at the Pacific Pension Institute. She graduated from Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in 2011, and from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 2015. Celina is currently pursuing her Master’s in Food Microbiology at Purdue University. Recently, she had time to sit down for a phone interview with Joanne, one of the Youth Development Specialists.

Joanne: Please share your experience at Enterprise for High School Students, as we were called back in the day.

Celina: I joined the program at my junior year in high school, and the program offered a lot of resources to help me find a job. I’d always lacked self-confidence to interview with employers after I applied for the job, and this was even before I joined the program, because I thought it would be nice to make some money and learn some tools that I could use later to apply to my everyday life. The handbook and the workshops were very helpful, and I would say the best part of the program was getting out of my comfort zone and engaging in a conversation with the rest of the members.

I also met Helen (Enterprise’s Program Manager) at that time, and she was hosting some of the workshops. She and the rest of the staff weren’t just there to offer advice to help me land a job, but they were also there for me when I need them, like tips for college applications or how to build my career path and so on.

I think without Enterprise, I would be struggling a lot with interviews, and building my resume and knowing what to wear at work and what kind of manners I should have, like etiquette in a working environment, and how to go about applying for jobs. I wouldn’t know where to start. Because I had work experience through Enterprise, when I talked to employers in college career fairs, they were convinced that I was a good candidate for that specific internship or job, so it showed that I was ready for the real world because I had an early start in developing my career path, even if that job wasn’t related to my major.

Joanne: How did you get your internship at the Pacific Pension Institute (PPI)?

Celina: Enterprise used to have binders of jobs available (Job Bank) and I was just searching through the listings for medical and admin jobs, because that was something I was interested in as a job for my future career, and I thought PPI was one of the jobs that I was interested in. I emailed Gwen, who was the recruiter for that job, and I did a phone interview with her, and then after the second round of interviews, I had an in-person interview with her before I actually got the job. I think meeting her in person was helpful because I got to talk to her from a personal level, and I think she really liked that about me.

Joanne: What’s the most important thing that you learned during your internship?

Celina: I guess if you make mistakes you have to own it. I think there was one time I mailed the wrong package, and I was really scared. I thought I was going to get fired and I knew lying wouldn’t be the right thing to do, and so I had to tell Gwen, who was my supervisor at the time.

She took it really well and she wasn’t mad or anything, and she knew that mistakes happen and it’s not the end of the world. She was there to train me, so I had to remind myself not to be too hard on myself, because I was only a high school student. But besides that, I also gained a lot of self-confidence throughout the internship experience, because I got to handle phone calls to clients, and I also got to collaborate with the staff.

Joanne: Any advice for youth preparing for work or higher education?

Celina: Don’t give up even after a bunch of rejection letters from employers, because that is reality. They should continue to talk to Enterprise and utilize the resources that are available. I think it’s important to build a good relationship with not only the staff at Enterprise, but also with employers from previous work experiences because it’s very important to get a good reference from them so you can apply to other jobs.

You don’t want to burn any bridges, because the industry is so small, and it gets even smaller when you’re only applying for jobs in your specific major after you graduate from college, so you have to have enough people to add on your references.

Joanne: What motivated you to study food microbiology, and at what point did you narrow your interests down to this specific field?

Celina: I originally started with chemistry back in undergrad, and then I decided to switch to food microbiology because after taking a couple classes in chemistry, I didn’t think that I was interested in it. After taking a crash course in Food Science 101 with Dr. (Amanda) Lathrop, she made me want to switch my major from chemistry to food science, and in food science I started doing some research work with Dr. Lathrop, and that’s how I got motivated to continue to study food microbiology.

Food science is very big and interdisciplinary. The 101 crash course gives you an overview of food microbiology, food chemistry, food processing, food engineering – all sorts of different fields within food science. So the crash course showed how chemistry and microbiology, all the sciences, and engineering, can be used for application purposes in food – how to better improve the global food supply, or how to make the food supply safer, or how to ensure that everyone gets enough to eat. I think that really made me feel that it would be a better major for me.

Joanne: Do you know what kind of job you want once you finish your Master’s?

Celina: I had a NASA internship after graduation from Cal Poly, and I really wanted to go back. I thought it would be really fun to make food for the astronauts, and I really enjoyed it when I was there two years ago as an intern. So I’m hoping to go back, but that really depends on whether there are any positions available after I graduate.

Joanne: That sounds really cool though! I don’t really know much about food for astronauts…

Celina: It’s changed a lot. It used to look like toothpaste and tubes and cubes, but now they eat what we eat. It’s just freeze-dried, and they just need to rehydrate it, like a cup of ramen noodles into noodles. Or they have a lot of thermo-stabilized foods which you just need to heat up in packages. It’s really cool.

Joanne: The next frontier: food in space!

Celina: Yeah! And you can apply everything you learn (in food science) to help improve the food quality at NASA.

Joanne: I hope it works out for you!

Celina: I hope so too!

Alumni Spotlight: Celina To