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Olivia Gerena, a Madison Park Technical school student who is working as a plumbing apprentice on campus at Northeastern University, poses for a portrait.

Boston high school students join Northeastern’s facilities team to learn the profession

Olivia Gerena, a Madison Park Technical school student who is working as a plumbing apprentice on campus at Northeastern University, poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

A leaky dorm room shower on Northeastern’s Boston campus isn’t a challenge for Madison Park Vocational High School senior Olivia Genera. Neither is installing a new garbage disposal at one of the residences in Burstein Hall.

But replacing a rotted-out, five-story drain pipe that handles the whole building’s kitchen water run off?

“That’s kinda next level,” says Brandon Berthelette, a Northeastern plumbing and mechanical foreman who’s been supervising Genera since the 16-year-old started working on campus in March. 

Genera didn’t hesitate, however, to grab a sledgehammer, help remove the busted five-story drainage system and replace the PVC piping from the ground up.

Woman reaches for plumbing tool while fixing a shower

Northeastern University plumber Mike Frost assists Olivia Gerena, a Madison Park Technical High school student who is working as a plumbing apprentice on campus at Northeastern University, while she works on a shower in the East Village dormitory.

“Every day when Olivia comes in, she brings a positive attitude, enthusiasm for learning and an energy that affects us all,” says Stephen Roy, a plumbing foreman at Northeastern. “She fits right in.”

Genera is part of a new apprentice program jump-started by Joseph Lalley, assistant vice president of facilities operations at Northeastern, and Kevin McCaskill, the executive director of Boston’s Madison Park Vocational High School. Northeastern needs skilled plumbers, electricians and other trade workers, says Lalley, and Madison Park students need experience.

“We saw an opportunity to provide pathways into the trade, and also a chance to make a community connection,” Lalley says of the apprentice program, which helped train two plumbers and one electrician during the 2021 Spring semester.

Berthelette created a makeshift learning bench tucked away in the Gainsborough Street plumbing workshop, allowing inexperienced vocational students to practice before tackling campus jobs. Genera, who had no hands-on plumbing training before this program, said the practice was key.

“I was pretty worried I was going to do something wrong at first,” says Genera. “I was kind of reassured that I got to practice.”

Madison Park Vocational High School students must be in the second half of their junior year or in their senior year to participate, and students switch weekly between working their trade on campus and attending high school.

“Madison Park, they’ve done a really good job with sending us the best of their best,” says Maria Galarza, manager of administration and special projects in the Facilities and Campus Planning divisions.

“They’re pretty young, between 16 to 18 years old, and so we do sit down and talk to them about the benefits of working at facilities and the possible opportunities for them. We try to provide that mentorship on top of the hands-on training,” says Galarza.

Madison Park Vocational High School senior Olivia Genera removes a dorm room shower valve, one of the many plumbing skills she’s learned as an apprentice at Northeastern's Boston campus. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Roy jokes that training high school students who are “as green as the grass” depends largely on their attitude.

“The more we do, the more excited she gets about it and the more we want to teach her,” says Roy.

For Genera, who wants to continue as an apprentice at Northeastern during her senior year in high school, the experience means she can make a fully-informed decision about work as a plumber.

“I just want to try it all,” says Genera.

Michael Frost, a plumber at Northeastern who has spent the most time teaching Genera the basics, is happy to comply.

“For her at her age to be able to come into a place like this and show the self-confidence she has, that says a lot,” says Frost. “She’s not intimidated. Not even a little.”

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