Jaelen H. Says Working at McDonald's Taught Him to Level Up His Life

Once living without access to affordable food, the now 21-year-old New Mexico native recalls how McDonald’s changed his future for the better.

DISCLAIMER: Sponsored Content paid for by McDonald's.

McDonald’s is a staple in communities across the United States. No matter where you’re from, you know exactly what it means when you see the Golden Arches—and we’re not just talking about the juicy burgers or crisp french fries. It’s food, fun, family time, and for others, it’s a setup for the future.

One in eight people living in the United States have worked at McDonald’s. Many start young, with hopes of making extra cash and having some extra time with friends outside of school, but others take the job with bigger goals in mind. Jaelen H. is one of the latter.

Born in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Jaelen began working at McDonald’s in 2019 after he was offered a way to finish high school and graduate with money in his pocket. He saw an opportunity for advancement—both personally and professionally—and access to affordable food.

Jaelen was raised in an abusive home with his brother and sisters, and had little to no money. His grandfather exhibited violent behavior towards his father; and in turn, his father responded with the same temperament towards him and his siblings. Jaelen was often malnourished and well below the average weight for his age. His father also didn’t allow him to spend much time away from the house outside of school. Unfortunately, Jaelen was kicked out of school at 15 for violating his school’s code of conduct. “This, in conjunction with my already turbulent home life, brought me into one of the darkest times of my life,” Jaelen tells Complex.

Jaelen needed a way out of the nightmare, a second chance to heal generational trauma, and a new path towards his educational and professional advancement. After being expelled, the Rio Rancho teenager began an alternative education charter program. There, he met McDonald’s franchise owner and operator Clemy G., a woman Jaelen says gave him a second chance to succeed.

“She came recruiting at the [alternate education charter] program,” he says. “Her pitch was, Okay, I can give you a job, and I can give you a way to finish high school. She had me at ‘a job.’”

Jaelen’s father passed away shortly after he started working at McDonald’s, but instead of sadness, he felt “free.”

“I was free to move on with my life as I saw fit,” he tells us. And move on and level up is exactly what he did.

In addition to work, Jaelen re-entered high school through McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity®, an education program offered to employees of company-owned and independently-operated McDonald’s restaurants, who want to improve their futures by earning a high school diploma, working toward a college degree, improving their English-language skills, or accessing academic or career planning services. Since launching in 2015, the Archways to Opportunity® program has provided access to education for more than 82,500 U.S. restaurant employees, including Jaelen.

For him, this opportunity changed everything. “I finished at the end of April 2020, which meant I graduated a year early from high school because of the Archways to Opportunity® program,” Jaelen says proudly.

With the help of Archways to Opportunity®, Jaelen attended an online high school and graduated with his accredited high school diploma and a certification in office management. He leveled up again when he applied for Archways to Opportunity® Tuition Assistance so he could attend a tech college in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The tuition assistance coupled with Jaelen's pay from his work at McDonald’s allowed him to finish school debt free. 

Graduate in blue cap and gown smiling against a colorful abstract background

Working at McDonald’s wasn’t just an after-school job for Jaelen it was a way to improve his daily life, giving him money to buy his own food and a sense of purpose. His new found freedom allowed him to completely change his life through what Garza describes as, “the power of education, employment, and a strong, supportive family.”

“It’s why I took Clemy up on her offer to begin with,” Jaelen adds. 

He now works as a Network Operations Center Analyst, where he troubleshoots network systems and devices, and lets it be known that he wouldn’t be where he is without the support of his one in eight network.

Read up on what he told Complex, and learn more about how being among the select one in eight people in the U.S. to have worked at McDonald's changed his life.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Honestly, I think I was in middle school when I figured, I'm probably not going to do too great if I sit in school for four, six, eight, 10 years for a bachelor's degree. The first thing I can recall was wanting to be an elevator technician because you get paid to learn how to do it and then you make pretty decent money.

How did you feel “free” after your father’s passing?

It gave me the opportunity to excel. I no longer had to go to the house in constant fear for my safety. I no longer had an enemy opposing my every move. While this is not the best thing for a teenager, I had enough stability in my life by this point to keep from going over the proverbial deep end. I believe I was deprived of many opportunities because of this, but it taught me to fend for myself.

As experience has proven, I have applied the lessons I learned from my childhood to my life, and have come a long way with them. A significant drive behind what I am doing now is to provide better for my own children, should I ever have any, than my parents and their parents ever did. 

How do you think working at McDonald’s and joining the Archways to Opportunity® programs changed your everyday scenario and environment?

Well, I didn't have to ask people for food anymore in the school yard. I'm out on my own, advancing my goals, and able to do a lot with my life as a result of the program. It's all about making the best of what you're given.

Inspirational quote on abstract background: "I'm out on my own, advancing my goals, and able to do a lot with my life as a result."

“I'm out on my own, advancing my goals, and able to do a lot with my life as a result.”

Do you remember the first moment you truly felt proud of yourself?

The night I finished my last class for high school was pretty triumphant. I stayed up all night finishing up some schoolwork. It was getting close to time to go to work and I realized I'm probably not going to get any sleep. Since I didn't sleep, I was probably up for about 24 hours or more. I got a couple of energy drinks, got through my shift and then decided I'm not going to sleep until I finished. So that's what I did, finished really late at night after I got off of work that day. Getting something huge done, that is a really good feeling.

After finishing school, you left McDonald’s, and currently work in IT. Can you tell us more? 

My current job title is Network Operations Center Analyst. There’s a broad range of what I get to do, like if a printer isn't working, to fixing the wifi for the whole building. I've learned a lot here and I get to use the skills that I've gotten over the years through work and school to their fullest extent. There's so much room for growth here, so I'm in a really good place right now.

What skills do you think you gained from work, from school, and the overall opportunity to be in the Archways to Opportunity® program that have helped you to become successful in your current path?

Well, learning how to deal with people [during my time] at McDonald's and being able to use the education I learned in the classroom is pretty sweet. I've had to train a few different people in various things, and it was crazy that I barely started doing this myself and now I get to teach somebody else how to do it. 

Today is your birthday, you’re doing an interview, and you’re getting ready to test for another IT certification. That has to be a pretty good feeling. 

If I pass the [certification] today, it'll be my sixth. My 18th birthday was kind of like this. I worked a pretty late shift that night, and then stayed up really late getting schoolwork done. It’s a good way to spend birthdays… working away at it, making good use of the time.

You mentioned working hard to have the lifestyle you want. What lifestyle do you aspire to have?

The caricature of the white picket fence. It is harder than ever to achieve it these days, but I have been given the means and opportunity to get [there]. If there is ever a family in my white picket fence, I will not repeat the failures of my parents and those who came before them. I will provide for them the opportunities I did not have, and I will do all I can to ensure they go on to be better than me in every way. 

What advice would you give to someone—whether they currently work at McDonald’s or want to work there—looking for a path to career advancement but don’t know where to start?

Find something you like doing, then figure out how to make money doing it. It doesn't have to involve college, but as long as you have an idea of what you like doing and how you can make money doing it, you’ll do great. I like what I do. It's fulfilling work. I have a good time. You don't want to have a job where you dread going in every day.

McDonald’s truly helped you get your start in the world. What would you tell someone asking about the benefits of working there?

You get to learn how to interact with people, even if you don't engage with customers all the time. Learning how to deal with all the different kinds of people you meet at McDonald's will serve you well in life. Learn the basic skills, get good at them, learn the soft skills, interact with people, work in the team, and that's going to serve you anywhere. Learn to make the best with what you've got… and that can carry you forward for a lifetime.

Looking back, what advice would your current self give to your younger self now that you’ve seen the opportunity for career advancement first hand?

Focus on what’s important. 

If you or someone you know is suffering from abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) or the Childhelp Hotline (1-800-422-4453).

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