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    Shirley Leung

    Ex-Raytheon chief knows the value of community colleges

    Bill Swanson.
    Handout
    Bill Swanson.

    Bill Swanson, the former chairman and chief executive of Raytheon, did not go to Harvard or MIT.

    In fact, if he had stuck to his original plan he would not have gone to college at all.

    “I was going to play golf professionally,” he recalled.

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    But his golf coach sensed that Swanson could do more than spend his life trying to make birdies and got him a scholarship to the local community college in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

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    After two years at Cuesta College, from which he graduated at the top of the class, Swanson went on to California Polytechnic State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering. His first job was on the factory floor at Raytheon, where he would stay for the next four decades, rising to the corner office.

    In his last year at the Waltham-based defense giant, Swanson took home $22 million, making him one of the most handsomely paid CEOs in the state. That fact alone could form a marketing campaign for community colleges everywhere.

    But the story of Swanson and his community college roots do not end there. It’s actually just the beginning. Three years ago, Swanson helped launch a program at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, where students get paid internships at local companies such as BJ’s Wholesale Club, EMC, and Raytheon.

    The “Learn and Earn” program started modestly with 20 students at five companies, and today it has grown to nearly 400 students placed at 15 employers. The students range in age from 18 to 59, and two-thirds are minorities, reflecting the demographics of the school. Many students have had their internships extended, and nearly two dozen have landed permanent jobs where they interned.

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    The American Association of Community Colleges recently named it the best college-corporate partnership of the year, out of the nearly 1,200 institutions the group represents.

    What’s the big deal here? Plenty of colleges get kids internships at marquee companies, but those kinds of opportunities are far and few between for those at community colleges.

    These are the kids at the bottom of the higher education system, the ones who either couldn’t get into four-year institutions or couldn’t afford to attend one. And they are often like Swanson, the first in their families to go to college.

    Swanson, through his work at the elite business group Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, wanted to help. Could he get these kids ready for work? Could a transformation take place if they worked at Bank of America or Suffolk Construction?

    “Sometimes when you go to a community college you want to prove yourself,” said Swanson, 66, who serves as the partnership’s chairman.

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    But don’t take his word for it. Meet a few of the Learn and Earn interns, and you begin to understand.

    Take Pedro Russell, who was making good money bartending but wanted more out of life. He enrolled at Bunker Hill and saw flyers about Learn and Earn. He had heard of these companies and didn’t expect they would take community college grads.

    He thought: “This is your chance to step up.”

    Last year, Russell spent six months interning at State Street Corp., processing cash and settling accounts after trades. This year, he is interning at Eaton Vance in a suit and tie three days a week.

    “It’s a real special program,” said Russell, 24. “It puts you on the same playing field as Suffolk University, Northeastern, and Bentley.”

    Bunker Hill student Smucker Almonord is an intern at State Street Corp. in Boston.
    Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
    Bunker Hill student Smucker Almonord is an intern at State Street Corp. in Boston.

    Smucker Almonord, a graduate of the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury, got into four-year institutions but couldn’t afford to go. Bunker Hill, thanks to grants, has been practically free.

    Almonord, 20, has been an intern for more than a year at State Street in its securities division, and when he graduates from Bunker Hill this month, he plans on enrolling in a four-year college to pursue a bachelor’s in economics. He wants a career in finance.

    “This is an opportunity you can’t find,” Almonord said.

    State Street has been involved in the program since the beginning and has hosted more than 100 interns, primarily in its investment operations. The Boston financial institution has hired 15 Bunker Hill students into permanent positions, including a couple of military veterans.

    “We are very pleased with the results,” said State Street human resources executive Mike Scannell. “It has been a partnership that has grown, and we’ve learned from each other.”

    For Bunker Hill president Pam Eddinger, Learn and Earn is about creating economic opportunities for those born without them. These are kids who can’t afford the $50,000-a-year cost of a private university — and often need to work full time to support themselves or their families while going to school.

    Bunker Hill is the largest of the state’s community colleges, with about 14,000 students. The average student age is 27, and it costs about $7,500 a year for a full load of courses.

    Because so many work, it can take anywhere from two to six years to complete a tw0-year associate’s degree.

    The Learn and Earn program is open to students of all majors. Interns are paid $15 an hour, work up to 40 hours a week, and earn academic credit. They’re assigned mentors, and receive stipends for transportation of as much as $500.

    The program currently has about 120 students a year, and Eddinger wants to double that figure and help other schools across the country to start their own versions. It’s something that has been missing at community colleges.

    “Three-quarters of our students come and they are the first person in their family to go to college. They have no culture in terms of college readiness or college-going,” Eddinger said. “Even a community college, as unintimidating as we are, is sort of a scary place.”

    Swanson also wants Learn and Earn to grow. He’s extending an open invitation to all.

    “There is nothing proprietary about the model,” he said. “Please have at it.”

    Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.