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BRIGHT FUTURES — Memorial graduate Jenna Khuu takes engineering path to Port Arthur robot building

At 19, Jenna Khuu has every child’s dream job — so much so that it changed her own goals.

The 2020 graduate of Port Arthur Memorial High School assists in the building of robots.

Three years ago, it wasn’t the type of career she imagined for herself. But that changed in 2020 after joining the Economic Development Corporation’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

“My career goal for going into college was chemical engineering,” said Khuu, who is enrolled in affiliated courses at Lamar University. “After working here awhile, I got really interested in what we do here as a company. So I’ve been looking into changing my major to mechanical (engineering).”

Khuu works for Robogistics, which designs and creates gantry robots for companies across the world. The machines are used in the heavy lifting of materials from a conveyor belt or pallets, according to the company’s website.

And a flashy website it is, which also happened to be designed by a student who entered the Summer Youth Employment Program with Khuu and also became an employee of the company.

“Last year was very successful,” said EDC Workforce Development Manager Ranoda McClain-Lee. “We actually placed a lot of kids throughout the program despite COVID.”

The program, which is open to applicants, provides high school seniors residing in Port Arthur an opportunity to enter the workforce.

“It’s a great way for students who are focused on particular subjects to get into the workforce and gain those soft skills,” McClain-Lee said. “A lot of them, believe it or not, do really well. They earn a great wage.”

Of the seven students that entered 2020’s program, five were employed by the companies in which they were placed. The other two, McClain-Lee said, left for college.

Opportunities include a multitude of job types in companies from welding facilities to law firms.

And the assembly of robots, it seems.

“I wanted to gain some type of experience in any industry at all,” said Khuu. “Luckily, I landed a job here. It was something out-of-the-box that I hadn’t experienced before. I mean, it’s Port Arthur. Where would you find robots? So when they told me I was like, ‘Wow. This is really interesting – robots – and it’s not far from my school.’”

The teen who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class did not work while in high school so she could focus on grades. But, having moved here from Vietnam at the age of 8 and learning English as a second language, she had limited opportunities to speak with those outside of school.

The opportunity to work on her communication skills in a professional environment was another force behind joining the program.

And it’s one she definitely recommends local seniors take advantage of.

“Anything can seem scary at first,” she said in a message to potential applicants. “If you’ve always been interested in learning something new, step out of that comfort zone. Who knows – what you want to do now might not be what you want to do in the future.”

Applications are available at portarthuredc.org and due by April 19. Employment begins June 14.