CLEARWATER — Jeana Fraser wants to become an optometrist. Or maybe a journalist.
The Countryside High freshman, accompanied by her mother and father, wandered jeans-clad through the school's career fair Thursday evening, actively procrastinating on doing her geometry homework.
The future seems far-off when you're 15, she admitted. But Fraser's parents assured her that early exposure to college recruiters and their expectations may help when she applies to her first choice, Florida State University.
"So, I came to meet people and get some ideas for college," she said.
Now in its fourth year, the Countryside High School career fair attracted about 700 students, parents, counselors and employers shaking hands and small-talking.
Hosted by the school's volunteer-run career center, the fair attracted local employers such as Publix, Radio Disney and the Decorating Den, who handed applications to young job hunters. The University of Tampa, ITT Technical Institute, Ohio State University and U.S. Navy recruiters, among others, offered advice and logo key chains.
"It's one-stop shopping," said Julie Yaeger, Countryside High School Career Advisory Council member and a career center volunteer. "Kids from very diverse backgrounds get a chance to meet employers face-to-face, gain interview skills, possibly land an after-school job and talk to colleges in the same place."
It can help students gain an advantage in the increasingly competitive job market, Yaeger said.
Countryside junior Sarah Linthicum attended last year's fair with a mission: Nab a job at Publix. Now, she works the register at the grocery store chain's location in Northwood Plaza.
"I was shell-shocked when I got the job," she said, wearing her green work vest to the fair. "Just thrilled. And it all happened so fast — one minute I was talking to the store manager, then I got the call, then I was bagging groceries."
Publix reimburses college tuition, which will enable Linthicum to study accounting at the University of Central Florida.
Kathleen Lamb, the career center volunteer director, said the fair allows students to explore possibilities and find passions. It's the culmination of year-round coaching at the center, which started 13 years ago with a Pinellas School Board grant.
"We were just a classroom, two chairs and a typewriter then, since funds couldn't be used for computers," Lamb said, laughing. "It's always been a team of volunteers, and we care deeply about what we're doing."
As the center grew, so did funding: A local Rotary Club raised enough money to "spruce things up," Lamb said.
Now, hundreds of Countryside students seek daily guidance from staffers who share recent job listings, edit resumes and conduct mock interviews. Those skills are essential to thrive in an unstable job market, Lamb said, but they aren't taught through the regular school curriculum.
"The career center helped me so much," Linthicum said. "I want others to know they can receive the same help."
"We ask the kids, 'What's in here?' " Lamb said, pointing to her heart. "If you know what you truly love, you know what you're supposed to be doing."
At the career fair Thursday night, a grinning young man launched into push-ups for an Army recruiter. A young woman with shimmering purple eye shadow asked an Aveda hair stylist about beauty school.
"Whatever it is they love," Lamb said, "we want to help students be successful and pursue that career."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4224.