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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.

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