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Internships Spark Seniors

When 400-plus seniors earn diplomas at today’s Staples graduation they’ll smile, whoop, and feel good about reaching an important milestone in life.

But 286 of them will walk especially tall.

Moving far outside their comfort zones, they spent the final 4 weeks of senior year — a time traditionally reserved for chilling out, planning pranks and being bored — getting a taste of the real world.

They moved far beyond Staples, working at scores of sites through the school’s innovative internship program.

And “work” is the operative word.

Two students interned at the Norwalk Hour. They performed mind-numbing but necessary journalistic tasks like rewriting press releases and compiling calendars.  But they also did hands-on work:  interviewing victims of tragedies, devising story ideas, writing articles for Page 1.

One girl asked for an internship at a funeral home.   She watched an embalming and dressing; set up a room and flowers for a visitation; wrote an obituary; picked up a body from a morgue — and learned Quickbook accounting.

Larry Abel interned at Boccanfuso Brothers.

Some students worked at elementary and middle schools.  They immediately grasped the difference between sitting at desks, and standing in front of them.  They dealt with kids who didn’t want to learn, kids disrupting the cafeteria, kids having a tough time in gym.  The Staples interns — “kids” themselves a few days earlier — became adults very quickly.

Several students got a taste of financial services — in Fairfield County, and New York.  One day they were hanging out in high school; the next they were on a train, heading for a high-powered office surrounded by men and women working 14-hour days and earning 7-figure salaries.

The salutatorian interned at the Town School Office.  At first, administrators were unsure how to use him.  But he wowed them by creating graphs, charts and analyses in areas like electric consumption.  Then he worked on a residency guideline project.  Each morning he walked through the office asking for work.  Employees eagerly gave him plenty.

The list of sites is long and intriguing:  Aldrich Art Museum.  Barcelona Wine Bar.  Beardsley Zoo.  Bridgeport Hospital.  Bridgeport Police Department.  Bridgeport Sound Tigers.  Christ & Holy Trinity Church.  Connecticut Humane Society.  Cox Radio.  Cycle Dynamics.  Daybreak Nursery.  Discovery Museum.  Earthplace.  Fairfield Theatre Company.  Fairfield Veterinary Hospital.  Gault.  Land-Tech Consultants.  Levitt Pavilion.  Linda McMahon for Senate.  Ned Lamont for Governor.  Peter Coppola.  Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club.  Save the Children.  Sport Hill Farm.  Tauck World Discovery.  Terex.  Uppityshirts.  Voices of September 11.  Westport Country Playhouse.  Westport Public Library.  Yumnuts.

Students gave in-store demonstrations, created websites, farmed, and did thousands of other tasks.  They gained new knowledge, learned new skills — and occasionally taught what they knew to supervisors (and at least once to an even-newer college intern).

The 286 interns did not accomplish everything on their own, of course.  Over 100 faculty supervisors made sure they stayed on track (and worked the requisite 100 hours).  Supervisors also received weekly “reflections” from the interns, who wrote about everything from understanding office decorum to earning a nameplate on their very own cubicle.

The 100-plus site directors also played a key role.

But none of it would have been possible without the vision of principal John Dodig — who devised the idea 5 years ago, then spent 2 years selling it to an at-times-dubious faculty — and the yeowomanlike work of Joyce Eldh.  “Internship director” is a part-time job, with full-time responsibilities.  It’s a tribute to Staples — and all educators in town — that an idea like the internship can become not only a reality, but a huge success.

Most learning, the cliche goes, takes place outside the classroom.  For 12 1/2 years, Westport prepares students inside its classrooms well.

Finally, the familiar doors fling open.  Hundreds of students head toward new, unknown doors.  They have no idea what’s behind them.

But they’re ready for anything.

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