4 Weeks Teach Life Lessons

It’s a paradox:  Our schools spend 13 years preparing students for the real world, without giving them any experience in it.

And it’s a problem:  After 13 years in school, 2nd-semester seniors always check out mentally.  It’s natural:  Spring settles in, and graduation looms.

But every problem has a solution, and Staples has come up with a great one:  senior internships.

For several years, 12th graders are given the option of spending their final 4 weeks off campus.  They work everywhere imaginable:  law offices, pet stores, marketing agencies, garden shops, wealth management firms, the YMCA, hospitals, schools, newspapers, architects, non-profits, veterinarians,  police departments and more.

They’re given real responsibilities.  They must clock in at least 100 hours.  They have to write weekly “reflections.”  Other than that, they’re on their own.

Ryan Armour learns how to manage wealth at Catamount Wealth Management.

This year, 3/4 of the senior class did internships.  (They must maintain a certain GPA throughout the year to qualify.)  Their experiences vary — as work experiences always do — but for the vast majority, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

They move outside their comfort zones.  They grow as people.  And they gain elusive, crucial “real world experiences.”

Here are a few:

An intern in a university medical lab made a mistake with samples and controls.  She briefly considered trying to cover it up, but realized the integrity of the data was important.  She confessed to her supervisor, who to her surprise “was completely calm and accepting.”  It took the intern over 2 hours to remix the dyes — but it was a lesson she’ll never forget.

When a boss gave her interns the Friday off before EcoFest — because they’d be working on Saturday — they came in anyway.  There was work to be done — and they had a good time doing it.

An intern had to set up paintings for an art show, but had “never really used a hammer.”  He asked how to do it — and now can add that to his skill set.

An elementary school intern wrote:  “Every day of every week so far, there has been a fight between 2 1st graders.  Almost every time, I see the conflict before the teacher.  So I have to solve the conflict on my own.  I calm each of them down, look at it from both of their standpoints, and make each other realize each other’s problems by saying it in a basic way.  So far I have always been able to solve their problems.”

An intern working as a newspaper photographer overcame her fear of approaching strangers in public.  The result:  great photos, one of which appeared on the front page.  “Here, you’re responsible for your own work,” she said.  “It’s your job to have things on time and well executed.  The executive editor complimented my photos, leaving me feeling proud and excited for the future.”

A special needs student interned with a special ed teacher.  The intern was asked to look after an autistic child, who had difficulty staying still.  The intern brought the student to the resource room, and connected with the child.  The site supervisor asked the intern how he’d done so well.  “I laughed because I was doing the same thing they were, only I was a little more assertive,” he said.

Max Berger and Kentaro Higuchi take a brief pause from their work at Gilbertie's Herb Gardens.

One intern — at a major corporation with headquarters in Westport — sat in on a corporate marketing review meeting.  “I received a firsthand look at collaboration between legal, marketing and communication,” he said.  “It was incredibly interesting.”

An intern at an architectural firm spent an entire day on a computer program scaling houses to size.  The next day, he was told to redo the project.  “I learned that it’s always best to talk to your supervisor before making any work final,” he reported.

The lessons learned transcend professional skills.  One intern was invited to a group social event after work on Friday.  She did not go, in part because she was unsure how to act.  But a colleague told her later that socializing was an important part of the workplace.  “I hadn’t realized how important the time spent not working is to both individual work and the group as a whole,” she said.

A life lesson for one intern came from his restaurant supervisor.  “I dealt with some pretty obnoxious people this week,” the intern said.  “My boss gave me a tip:  If they sense fear they’ll take advantage of you.  So be fearless!  As soon as I acted stern and unwavering, people gave me more respect.”

One  girl’s internship came full circle.  Working with flowers, she was surprised to find herself worrying about flowers for her own senior prom.  She fretted about “transporting them, if the wheatgrass would grow properly, how the daisies would fit in, if we would have enough ribbon, etc.”  It all worked out — after which she wrote, “it would seem like something as minuscule as centerpieces for the prom would be easy or nothing to worry about, and you don’t really think about it if you’re not involved in the process.  I’m sure none of the kids at the prom thought about the amount of work and planning and time that went into those vases on their tables, and I’m sure a lot of them barely noticed.”  But, she realized, she made a difference.  She concluded: “mission accomplished.”

And — like 300 of her classmates — she can say proudly say, thanks to their internships, “mission accomplished” for their high school careers.

20 responses to “4 Weeks Teach Life Lessons

  1. Staples teacher

    John Dodig’s creative, persevering and inspiring vision are the reason this program began. His care for our students is constant.

  2. SHS intern mentor

    The other people who have a great time and benefit from the SHS internship program are the mentors who provide backup support to the interns if they need a sounding board about the job or the fellow workers/supervisor. You take them to their site to “meet the boss” and see the workplace, there is some beautifully computerized paperwork once a week, you read their weekly observations and you get to parent other people’s children and they actually listen to you! You hear them compare hours working at work vs school; how it can be a differnt kind of
    tired. You hear how excited they get when their project can actually make a
    difference in a company’s decision, and what a roller coaster of fear and elation they go through when asked to give a presentation to adults in a meeting and the power point doesn’t work and they have to do it “alone” and it is successful. And they always seem slightly amazed that they can actually use what they have learned in school in the real world!

    As a Westport taxpayer, I was thrilled to hear the Supervisors’ comments about how well educated their interns were, how welll they got along in a new environment, listened to instructions and were able to take old knowledge and apply it to new situations. If you are a parent of a SHS student, I highly recommend mentoring next year!

  3. Richard Lawrence Stein

    As the spouse of a teacher who is also an advisor to many students in the internship program, I have to say, I am outright JEALOUS of these students. The exposure, experience, and excitement I hear about is just phenomenal. I wish that this program and experience existed when I was at Staples long ago.

    • Fairfield's Defense

      Richard- back in the day, what would have been your internship of choice been?

  4. This approach to education is not entirely new. Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio was an early pioneer in this effort, with a work/study program instituted early in the 20th Century. This college is in the process of being reborn after bad management, under a unversity structure, resulted in its shutdown.

    This fall classes will resume with a limited number of students attending this startup. This is coming about because a dedicated cadre, spearheaded by dreamers and alumi,forced this college back to life. The work/study system was good for me, my sister and brother and wife, plus thousands of others over the years.

    Translating this concept to the high school level, if only a start, is good news indeed.

  5. I was part of the task force in the mid-1990s for the development of a senior project, culminating in Senior Option. I believe there were 10 students that first year. It’s wonderful to see how this has expanded, to the benefit of students and staff and the community as a whole. If mentoring is available to members of the community, I’d be delighted to participate and highly recommend the experience. A win-win experience for all involved.

  6. The Armour Family

    AND KUDOS to Joyce Eldh, who without her none of this would have been possible. She worked countless hours, during the school day, at night, and over school breaks to place these students in the positions. Thank you Joyce for taking on such an amazing task !!

  7. I agree with the last statement. Joyce Eldh knows almost everyone in town, knows almost all the students in the senior class, and loves working them on any project. She took this program from a start four years ago with just under 50 students to where it is now with about 400 students. That could not have happened without her dedication, hard work, and desire to do something good for SHS students. I thank her every time I see her.

  8. The Dude Abides

    I am not sure where the concept of internership was derived. I think it is a good one. The head of JCrew has mentioned that the first question he asks in an interview was “what was your high school job?” His curiousity is centered on whether the applicant can take orders from the corporate hierarchy. That being said, there may be too much of an emphasis on internships rather than actual jobs. This seems to be true for college students as well as the program at Staples. There is nothing like a paycheck to bring a sense of realtiy to the worker. It is one thing to have an impressive resume and another to be able to semi-financially independent during your young adult years. Kudos to those who participated. Now what is your summer job???

    • Dude –

      The internship provides many corporations with a revolving door of free, educated labor. Back in the day, this used to be an “entry level job” sought by recent college grads hoping to get a foot in the door at their profession of choice. Those jobs don’t seem to exist in the new economy as college interns complete mundane and non-essential tasks at no cost – cheaper than a full time hire with benefits and even less costly than a temp worker. It’s a total win for big business – they try before they buy and perhaps select a handful of super talented, or well connected interns for future employment. For the vast majority of interns, the experience is no more than a resume builder. If you look at unemployment statistics for the 21-27 age group, you should certainly consider the college internship as a leading cause for this growing problem.

      However….I don’t think the same can be said for the Staples Internship. The seniors spend 4 weeks getting their feet wet, and getting a taste of the world outside of the classroom – often in an area they hope to pursue in college (teaching, finance, marketing etc) . IBM isn’t hiring Staples interns – local business works in partnership with the school to provide this experience which is far more beneficial for the student than the company.

      Personally, I think Joyce Eldh is a saint, and the Internship program changed our child’s life forever. That 4 weeks turned into a paid summer job, became a GAP year that involved corporate travel, fostered maturity & personal responsibility, as well as a new career path before heading off to college. I think there was plenty of luck involved, but if not for the Staples Internship opportunity – none of it would be possible.

      • The Dude Abides

        I am glad to hear of your positive experience with your child. My questioning of the internship program was not intended to degrade its importance. Instead, the option of actually working during your time in high school or college seems to be replaced by the culturiologically and academically accepted internship program is my actual question. I feel this may be a mistake in the development of the new generation’s future employment. You site unemployment as high as well as 85% of college graduates will be living at home along with a flat lining of entrepreneurship in this country. These are disturbing trends. I know that many of my daughter’s graduating law school class expect to be making six-figures once they pass the bar. That is not happening and they are facing incredible student loan debt. So, they scamper home and live off their parents instead of working a menial job out on their own until an opening develops. Certainly the economy is not helping but I would like to see more Staples’ kids hustling for a paycheck instead of sitting on the bench in lacrosse or a member of 14 extracurricular clubs. Certainly colleges have figured out this bloated resume and the word on the street is that Staples’ kids don’t want to work and if they do take a job, they are not the best.

  9. Janice Holston

    “After 13 years in school, 2nd semester seniors always check out mentally. It’s natural . . ..”
    I wonder if the Japanese and Germans, who go to school 274 days a year, or the Chinese who attend classes up to 12 hours a day, feel the same way. And we wonder why we rank 17th in the world in education.

    • Every choice in education has consequences. I have mentored students in this program since its inception. I also teach grade 11 research paper courses, possibly the most demanding English course Staples students face

      I have been impressed by how many students actually match the interest they expressed in the research paper course with their internships. I have no idea how this happens–whether serendipitous or by design. But students who research social issues have gotten internships at Save the Children. Students with interests in the environment end up interning at the Conservation Commission, the Town Engineers, or Sherwood Island. Is this true for all students in the program? I don’t know. But it has been for seven of the eight students I’ve mentored.

      Academic study without a sense of application can be airy and overly abstract. I suggest that the internship program helps students root their knowledge. If –as you imply–laziness is a motivating factor for participating in the program, then the program is wrong-headed. But my experience as a mentor does not support that.

      • I don’t think that there was an implication of laziness of interns. I think Ms. Holston’s condemnation was that the entire public education system and our society has gotten lazy. It seems common sense that a student who does a research project will pursue a coveted internship within that arena. While the days of attending school, knocking yourself at football practice and then going home to milk the cows may be long gone, certainly work study programs could be implemented that would surpass 4 weeks of OJT.

      • Thanks to you Mr. Liepolt and the other great Staples teachers, most graduating students are better equipped for their freshman year college experience and the real world than those of other quality schools.

        Ask returning college freshman how they did and the great majority will reference the prep from Staples gave them an edge, especially with writing.

        As for my daughter, she worked beginning at age 16 in Westport and was able to parlay those experiences into her work study in Washington DC and eventually a solid base for her career.

        • By other quality schools do you mean Darien and New Cannan, or maybe Andover and Choate?

  10. The Dude Abides

    Regardless of the school, writing seems to be the common denominator in success freshman year when close to 25% nationwide don’t make it through to become sophomores.

  11. westporter95

    It’s a great program. Thanks Joyce for all your work.

  12. I had the fortune of working with John Dodig and Joyce Eldh on the founding committee for the program. Joyce’s work has been tremendous — the program would literally not exist without her. It’s been great to see how much it has grown.