Jennifer Moreno, a newly hired intermediate business systems analyst for the Houston Independent School District (HISD), is an impressive and articulate emblem of what can be achieved when altruistic mentors and educators choose to invest in the potential of every student. Her journey as a 2017 graduate of the district’s uniquely developed high school SAP program – and eventual college graduate of the University of Houston Downtown – should serve as motivation for any student to believe their dreams are possible.

Her story begins with the vision of another individual, one who also received an impactful mentorship early in life.

The Possibilities of Early Mentorship

Tony Buehler, senior IT manager of SAP at HISD and founder of the SAP (OneSource) Student Internship Program, found his passion and future career back in 1995, when a mentor suggested he research the up-and-coming software company known as SAP. He was told that SAP would likely become foundational to just about every business infrastructure and could lead to a long and fruitful career.

Nearly 20 years later, in 2014, Buehler brought his burgeoning SAP expertise to the HISD IT department. At the time, he was sent to an IT management class that explored the theme, “What can you do in your department to help students?” Buehler realized that upon leaving school, students would be exposed to SAP processes in some manner at most businesses. He suggested implementing a hands-on curriculum for teaching SAP to high school students. With the approval of his superiors, he launched an experimental extracurricular program – with a mentorship-based approach – for junior- and senior-level students.

The eight-week commitment required interns to attend meetings and training sessions, working with their mentors on resolving problems and making enhancements in the HISD production system. Remarkably, by the fifth week, interns were able to analyze and solve real customer issues alongside their mentor.

The Growth of the Internship Program

The internship program started with just eight students in its first year – five from Sam Houston MSTC High School and three from Scarborough High School. To date, over 100 students have graduated from the program and continued on to pursue a college education. The eighth-largest school district in the U.S., HISD is comprised of 79.1% economically disadvantaged students. For many, the pursuit of a college education, let alone a career in technology, seemed like an impossible dream. But Buehler and his team believed that internships using a mentoring model could change the game. Their goal was to empower youth with the realization that they could understand SAP and apply that knowledge towards a college path and future career.

Within four years, HISD’s SAP internship program became the first K-12 program to join the Global University Alliance. The alliance is a worldwide consortium of over 3,400 colleges and universities, with a focus on enterprise and industry standards, research, and best practices. HISD is proud to be the only non-college-level member.

“This program is a big deal for us,” Buehler said. “We’re doing something no one else is doing. Our internship program looks at each student as a diamond in the rough. It’s great to see these students sparkle when they realize that they have the ability and desire to pursue a career in the technology field for their future.”

The Groundwork for Purpose and Success

Jennifer certainly represents an SAP program success story. With her years of experience attained through classes and work as a summer intern, she is well prepared for an SAP career. Buehler knew that with her knowledge, she would be a perfect fit within the HISD IT department. He even adjusted an open position to entry-level status so Jennifer could qualify to apply. Out of 43 applicants, her superior résumé made her the obvious choice.

As one of the first students in the program, she credits the internship with fully preparing her for the successful transition to college IT courses. In fact, her level of SAP knowledge was so comprehensive, she was asked to teach first-level classes by one of her professors. Jennifer is quick to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of her mentors and the life-changing merits of the program.

“Ty Matthews was the mentor that oversaw setting us up with the right person depending on our interests,” she said. “She was always someone with whom we could comfortably express our concerns, and she always guided us in the right direction. Even after the internship, she would always reach out to connect and guided me to come back every summer for the internship. As a result, I spent six years working as a summer intern. This program has been a success due in big part to her contribution and kindness to the students. Tony also made us feel very welcome and would include us in his weekly team meetings to make us feel like real employees. His promotion of that kind of opportunity and consideration truly made me feel like I could become a business professional.”

Today, Jennifer is embracing her additional role as an ambassador of the program by speaking to area high schools about the merits of SAP training and careers in IT. She stands before them as a testimony of what can be achieved. With future plans to expand the program across the rest of the district, eight schools may offer SAP training within the next two or three years. Jennifer says she is ready to pay it forward by sharing her journey as motivation for other students to pursue their aspirations and hopes for a fulfilling career. She has come full circle – from student, to graduate, to SAP professional, and, now, to inspirational mentor.

Steve Risseeuw is national vice president of State, Local, Education, & Healthcare at SAP.