Very special specialists

Raffi Kahwajian and Ngan Mork at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif. on March 15, 2017. They are SFP Program Specialists and are working on the Innovative Brahma Challenge, which is an opportunity for students to pitch and possibly earn funding for their business ideas. Photo: Debbie Donovan.

Ngan Mork and Raffi Kahwajian are a specialist dream team when it comes to helping students find opportunities, grants and internships for their fields of interest both on and off campus.

Both Mork and Kahwajian share an office with fellow co-worker David Turcotte.  Mork is close with her coworkers and is often referred to as the “mom” around the office. Mork is a Specially Funded Program (SFP) specialist who was hired to work with the LA High Tech grant.

“I am very comfortable behind the scenes, planning and coordinating,” Mork said. “I hate being the center of attention.”

Mork, a Minnesota native, moved to California when she was 11. She told herself that she would move back to Minnesota once she was done with school, but now she can’t see herself outside of California.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else now that I am here,” Mork said. “I loved the four seasons over there, but now I don’t know how people live in that cold. It is just nuts. The fact that you can go hit the ocean and the snow in one day if you really wanted to here, the diversity with all the different cultures just coming together – that is what I love about California.”

Mork was an assistant principal at a private special needs school for eight years before coming to Pierce. There she ran a transition age life skills and vocational program that helped bring basic skills to her students.

“All of my students were between the ages of 18 through 22 with different ranges of disabilities, from autism to intellectual disabilities to emotional disabilities, and all of them would have their own challenges to surpass to be successful in life,” Mork said.

Mork said that she is proud of what she was able to accomplish at the school.

“I helped develop a formalized training program and I loved it there,” Mork said. “We had an internship program with various local businesses that were willing to partner with us and show our students the soft skills needed to be able to communicate with their coworkers, use their breaks and work on the social cues they missed.“

Mork relates that working at her previous position has helped her in her new position at Pierce.

“There were a lot of transferable skills because I think that at the end of the day you have to understand that everybody has their challenges,” Mork said. “Everybody comes from a different background and you want to make them aware of their opportunities. I think that is involved in both situations and that is what I’m doing. I want them to be aware of what is possible, what they’re capable of and then just kind of spreading the word about these opportunities.”

Mork works closely with, Kahwajian, the other SFP specialist, to help coordinate events for the students.

“I like being able to collaborate with Raffi since he’s my counterpart,” Mork said. “When we do overall events that we think more students would be able to benefit from, we push them into the works. Like we brought in a LinkedIn workshop, in which we brought a person to talk about LinkedIn and help our students learn how to use it to market themselves and brand themselves to be more visible.”

Kahwajian is in charge of the LA Regional Career Pathways grant. The grant’s purpose is to connect high schools in pathway subject matters to the college. That way, college students can ultimately have opportunities for employment, internships, mentorships, job shadowing or other types of work experience.

From working as an admissions and records assistant and after becoming the senior secretary for the dean of student success, Kahwajian then became a SFP agent.

Kahwajian is enjoying his newfound work as he figures out the system and its kinks.

“I like it because it is the whole gamut of connecting high schoolers to the college and then to the industry all in one project,” Kahwajian said. “It’s a limited time. The grant will come to an end in 2019 as far as using its funding for these goals, but basically we are free to develop partnerships however we need to. So that means we are partnering up with the high schools on the levels we want.”

Kahwajian is happy to be working for Pierce College because one of his main goals has always been to one day make it back to the community college level of higher learning. It held a certain nostalgia for him because that is where he got his start.

“I started my education at a community college,” Kahwajian said. “I wanted to return to become part of this world of higher ed, so as soon as there was the opportunity for me in 2015 to enter the community college school district, I took it.”

Kahwajian does what he can to provide Pierce students with new grants and internship opportunities. Some of the challenges that Raffi faces is finding internships for the students is finding ones in which they can participate in. Kahwajian wants to focus more on being able to provide the schools with deeper resources so they can partner with Pierce on a higher level and with the internship programs.

“I have to figure out how to best wrap up the spending on all the money in this grant and streamline as much as I can toward the students,” Kahwajian said.

Kahwajian hopes that the grant fund will stay around in the long term.

“What we don’t want to happen is to just spend the funds,” Kahwajian said. “We don’t want to get some good opportunities going for a couple of years and then for it to have to disappear once the program ends just because the funds did.”

Richard Mellinger, director in charge of the Los Angeles Healthcare Competencies to Careers Consortium, works together with Kahwajian when it comes to grants. Mellinger appreciates his work ethic and positive attitude.

“Raffi is definitely a team player,” Mellinger said. “He is student centered and wants to see pathways produced and success for our students. He is a tireless worker and he is always there to help.”

Mork is glad to have someone like Kahwajian to work beside her.

“Raffi is very driven,” Mork said. “We’ve learned a lot together. He’s taught me a lot about Pierce. It’s strangely been a really good partnership. He’s been a valuable resource and partner in this project.”

This is a sentiment that Kahwajian shares.

“I’m finding out what matters is the relationships between people. If you can get people to connect, and have good, collaborative, working relationships with each other, then even if the program is gone, or if there is no more funding, at least they will now have rapport that they didn’t have before. Whether it is professors on campus who know the high school faculty or local businesses, they can continue to reach out to each other via email or call each other and set things up for their classes.”