Jennifer Mejia didn't know it at the time, but the electrical fire that engulfed her trailer home would shape her career course.
After the smoke cleared, Mejia and her older sister spiraled into a funk. They got out by getting gym memberships.
"We were both overweight and thought it would be a benefit for us," she said. "Once I get something in my head, I stick to it."
Weighing more than 220 pounds then, Mejia felt uncomfortable in her body. As she pumped iron and did cardio, her health improved, and so did her confidence. Not only did she want to learn how to exercise correctly, but she wanted to train others too.
Last fall, she joined the two-semester personal trainer program at San Jacinto College's South Campus. With her classmates, Mejia is learning proper form and getting trainer experience as the program offers its first-ever internships.
Training the trainer
Although personal trainer students have job shadowed before, this spring marks the first time they have participated in semester-long internships.
These internships happened thanks to conversations among personal trainer instructor Trent Denton, health science department chair Dr. Kira Beal, and industry partners on the program's advisory board. Along with revamping the curriculum, Denton and Beal negotiated internships with five fitness partners.
San Jac alumna Geri Niess, a Camp Gladiator bootcamp instructor, serves as one of the internship hosts.
Although certified through an online program, Niess attended San Jac in 2014 to get hands-on training to boost her skills and benefit her clients. Now she welcomes the chance to give back to the College and train aspiring trainers.
"Our goal is to set them up for success wherever they plan on becoming a trainer out in the field," Niess said. "We want them to have the knowledge, the determination to work hard — be able to impact someone's life."
Learning to lead
Mejia and three other students are Camp Gladiator interns. At the beginning of the internship, they attend a 5 a.m. bootcamp to exercise with other campers. They experience the camper role, give feedback to the trainer, and learn how the Camp Gladiator franchise operates.
Later, the interns will get to run short segments of the workouts, like a 15-minute warmup. Once they are comfortable instructing, they will lead a full workout.
While some trainers prefer one-on-one instruction, Niess hopes students who enjoy group training will consider working for Camp Gladiator.
"But if not, they can still reach out to me for advice and mentoring," she said. "I love to see them grow into the best trainers possible."
Jessalyn Zambrano is another Camp Gladiator intern. Like Mejia, she wants to help friends and family struggling with weight and health issues.
Although the former cheerleader and dancer stayed active throughout high school, junk food often zapped her energy. While Zambrano allows herself some cheat meals now, she usually grabs more nutritious fuel.
"You don't have to be fit to train others," she said, "but my opinion is you need to be a role model to someone else."
After passing her certification test, she wants to work as a Camp Gladiator trainer and build her clientele while pursuing a bachelor's degree in fitness and human resource.
Unlike Mejia, who is pursuing physical therapy next, Zambrano plans to build her own gym, a "no-judge zone" open to people of all skill levels. She is already getting practice training her mom.
For Zambrano, no judgment doesn't mean accepting excuses. When her mom wanted to quit at first, the aspiring personal trainer reminded her she wouldn't reach her goals that way.
"You can't play nice all the time," she said. "You have to get aggressive. If you don't, your clients aren't going to take you seriously."
Gaining skills, confidence
Although pursuing different career goals, Mejia, Zambrano, and other personal trainer students have welcomed the field experience from the internships. They witness personal training in action while learning how to motivate others to become their healthiest inside and out.
Friends have already asked Mejia to train them once she's certified. From being uncomfortable in her body to tackling deadlifts, incline runs, and overhead presses with a grin, she knows the difference a good sweat can make.
"In high school, I used to be more shy," she said. "Now [being healthier] I'm more outgoing. If you have more confidence, you feel happier with yourself."