Forging Future Leaders

photo: WSU Vancouver campus quad

While every student can benefit from having a mentor in the business world, not every student has access to securing one. The Future Leaders Project aims to help.

Established in 2020, the Future Leaders Project is an initiative of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, Workforce Southwest Washington and WSU Vancouver that seeks to connect students from historically underrepresented communities with Clark County employers and provide them with tools to thrive as they prepare to enter the workforce.

Paid internships provide real-world experience

Part one of the Future Leaders Project is a paid summer internship with a Clark County business. WSU Vancouver juniors and seniors who want to build on their professional experience and bring a diverse perspective to the business community apply for the program in April. After an initial review, finalists are interviewed by a panel of professionals representing each of the sponsoring agencies. Selected candidates are placed in internships where they work 20 hours a week from June through August and make $3,000.

This summer 10 internships were available with partner businesses, including Columbia Bank; CREDC; Edge Networks; Fourth Plain Forward; Gravitate; PointNorth Consulting; Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt; TwinStar Credit Union and Workforce Southwest Washington. Interns filled positions focused on communication, finance, human resources, marketing and more.

“Through their participation in the Future Leaders Project, companies demonstrate—with action—their commitment to increasing the number of historically underrepresented talent within their businesses and promote upward mobility opportunities for more students,” said Monica Santos-Pinacho who worked with the project through CREDC during its inaugural year.

Students gain skills and confidence on the job

Eli Cortes has a very specific career dream. He wants to be a mechanical engineer and open a nonprofit organization that builds prosthetics with advanced neurological interfaces that will revolutionize how we see disability. Cortes, a mechanical engineering major, was a member of the first Future Leaders Project cohort and worked as a summer intern for CREDC.

During his internship, Cortes worked on communication, outreach and data management projects. He said he developed his soft skills, too. “I learned how to ‘manage up’ to my manager’s expectations and how to manage timelines and deadlines with a range of stakeholders across the team,” he said.

“The motivation and drive Future Leaders Project interns show is both inspiring and impressive,” said Santos-Pinacho. She recalled meeting a quiet, shy prospective intern during the interview process who was unsure if she was a good fit for the Future Leaders Project.

“Fast forward three months and this same intern was driving conversations, talking about all the different experiences and projects she was able to be a part of and how exciting it was to learn about so many areas of The Home Depot Quote Center where she was interning,” said Santos-Pinacho. “Her manager and team members shared about how much value she brought to the team and what a team player she was throughout her internship.”

Businesses play a role in cultivating their future workforce

Businesses that participate in the Future Leaders Project are taking a proactive step in talent development and creating a workforce pathway into their industry and company. WSU Vancouver Assistant Vice Chancellor for Strategic Partnerships Narek Daniyelyan said, “Business and industry leaders sometimes express concerns about the lack of ‘high-quality’ talent to fill the jobs in their organizations. The Future Leaders Project gives them an opportunity to help develop that talent.”

Sometimes it’s who you know

Students who apply to the Future Leaders Project agree to continue with the project through the academic year following their internship. That’s part two of the project. During that time, students participate in leadership and professional development training. They are also invited to events that provide the opportunity to practice their networking skills. “It’s all about building social capital,” said Daniyelyan. “Students come to WSU Vancouver to get education they need to be successful in their chosen career path. In today’s world, a great education is not enough to guarantee success. It is our responsibility to prepare students for the workforce by helping them acquire the skills they need to be successful postgraduation.”

“One of the highlights of my internship was getting to meet Billy Henry, the founder, president and CEO of the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes,” Cortes said. “Billy passed on valuable insights and pointers based on his own experience starting and developing a successful nonprofit organization. He told me if I dreamt it and put in the time, I could achieve my goals. His words were both inspirational and impactful. His advice will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

CREDC President Jennifer Baker said it was good to be reminded of how simple gestures such as making time for a quality conversation with a student or bridging connections to an industry leader can make a positive difference in that student’s pursuits.

A life changer

“I applied to the Future Leaders Project in the hopes of developing myself professionally and to gain the skillset necessary to stand out amongst my peers,” Cortes said. “From the professional development I gained during my internship, to the numerous opportunities to connect with community leaders, the Future Leaders Project has been a life-changing experience that has helped feed the fire inside me.”

Paying it forward

WSU Vancouver alumnus Narek Daniyelyan joined the university as assistant vice chancellor for strategic partnerships last winter. His work focuses on strategic engagement in the broader Portland/Vancouver metropolitan region in areas including research and business partnerships, internships, philanthropy and student recruitment.

“I am a first-generation immigrant and I was a first-generation college student. My education at WSU Vancouver opened doors and gave me access to career opportunities that helped me achieve a quality of life I didn’t think was possible. As a result, I have chosen to dedicate my professional career to developing meaningful partnerships that lead to opportunities for economic mobility for others,” said Daniyelyan.

In his previous role as director of strategic initiatives at Workforce Southwest Washington, Daniyelyan provided leadership in the areas of system change, strategic partnership development, and integration of diversity, equity and inclusion in workforce development efforts across Washington’s Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties.

WSU Vancouver has ample opportunity to build new relationships with metro-area businesses and extend the reach of some of the university’s successful programs. More than 35,000 WSU alumni work in the region, many of whom can facilitate partnerships with WSU Vancouver for their companies or employers.

To discuss partnership opportunities, contact Daniyelyan at

Share this story: