Swarthmore's Extern Week Enriches Students and Alums

by Ryan Dougherty
Nick Schmidt ’17
Nick Schmidt ’17 shadowed physicians at a hospital in Camden, N.J.

Nick Schmidt '17 wanted a glimpse of a day in the life of a hospital. What he got was an eyeful.

Shadowing physicians from Cooper University Hospital (Camden, N.J.) over winter break, Schmidt witnessed a knee replacement surgery that's now stitched into his mind.

"I was surprised by the violence of it," says Schmidt, from Wormleysburg, Pa. "I was prepared for the sawing of the femur and tibia, but still startled by the force.

"I realized the confidence in what you're doing that you need to perform an operation like that," he adds, "as well as the trust that's placed in the doctor's hands when the patient agrees to lie down on the table."

Schmidt is one of 221 Swarthmore students who participated in Extern Week in January. Administered by Career Services, the program matches students with alumni, parents, and friends of the College employed in fields of their interest. Students shadow (and in some cases stay with) their sponsors, gathering invaluable experiences and insights and strengthening intergenerational bonds at the College.

The program took Elena Ruyter '14 to Bronx Leadership Academy II High School in New York, many of whose students are disadvantaged. Ruyter watched teachers deal with challenges that "were hard to wrap [her] brain around."

"Just keeping the kids on task was constant work," says Ruyter, an art major from New York City. "But seeing how dedicated the teachers were, even with knowing the cards were stacked against most of their kids, was incredible. They need to engage all aspects of their intelligence and will."

A highlight was the time Ruyter spent in the art room, where students learned the tradition and iconography of African masks. When students made their own masks from clay, their figurative masks disappeared.

Elena Ruyter '14 and Twan Claiborne ’08.
Elena Ruyter '14 and her sponsor, Twan Claiborne ’08, at Bronx Leadership Academy II High School in New York.

"They started opening up in ways I hadn't seen in other classes," she says. "They were excited to tell me about the great care they took to come up with something that really resonated for them."

Nearly 3,000 miles away, Dominic Castro-Wehr '16 of Nevada City, Calif., and Meiri Anto '16 of Mountain View, Calif., traversed a similar path of meaning. They shadowed Ilinisa Rose Hendrickson '97 with her Berkeley, Calif.-based organization, We Care Solar, which illuminates maternity clinics and hospitals in developing regions.

Hendrickson immersed the students in energy poverty and its effects on healthcare, arranging for them to conduct phone surveys on the organization's Solar Suitcase technology with clinical staff in Liberia, Nigeria, and Malawi. Castro-Wehr and Anto "jumped in with gusto," says Hendrickson, even though time differences relegated calls to between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

"My living room became the de facto night-time office," she says. "It was great to see them turn the project into a Swattie-style all-nighter."

Back in The Big Apple, Ascanio Guarini '16 shadowed Karan Singh Madan '91 at Barclays Capital and relished its culture of mentorship. Traders would pop quiz the New York City native, fostering real-time learning.

"One senior commodities trader ran me through the entire oil industry, asking me things like 'What shape would you expect the price level curves for oil to be during the summer and winter?'

"If I had any trouble, he would run me through it again, slowly guiding me in the right direction," says Ascanio. "He wanted to give me a true perspective on the kinds of decisions he makes on a daily basis."

Wes Rivers, DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI), James Gastner '16, David Grosso, Council of the District of Columbia, Ed Lazere, DCFPI, Jenny Reed, DCFPI, Elissa Silverman, DCFPI.
James Gastner '16 (second from left) with D.C. Councilmember David Grosso, Swarthmore parent Ed Lazere (third from right), and other staffers at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

James Gastner '16 shadowed Ed Lazere, father of a Swarthmore student and executive director at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI), experiencing the array of factors that shape public policy. Gastner conducted research on which types of workers would benefit from The District's recent minimum wage increase for a DCFPI blog post and used a Census Bureau data-gathering tool to research property taxes. But the highlight was meeting with D.C. councilmembers on topics ranging from homelessness to a proposed soccer- stadium subsidy.

"It was unique to see advocacy happen right before my eyes," says Gastner, of Media, Pa.

Back out west, Madison Heppe '16 shadowed Anne Fischer '84 on Forest Service operations in Arizona. She got her hands dirty, so to speak, collecting soil gas samples to test for toxicity at Prescott National Forest. During a road trip through Tonto National Forrest, she inspected fences, bridges, and a fish hatchery, seeing much of the nearly three million acres.

"She saw ecosystems from Sonoran Desert to Ponderosa Pines," Fischer says. "Or, as we say, from the Spines to the Pines."

The experience affirmed Heppe's love of the great outdoors and planted the seed for a Forest Service career.

"It would allow me to be an engineer in a setting that I adore," she says.

While Extern Week fanned Swarthmore students across the country and expanded perspectives, it also gave some the sense of a small world when they bumped into alums unexpectedly.

"I encountered two other alums as I made my rounds," says Schmidt, "which instilled confidence that I'm at the right place to do whatever I want to do after my undergraduate studies."  

Nick Schmidt ’17.
Madison Heppe '16 at a fire clearing in Tonto National Forest.

Gastner ran into an alum while watching Lazere speak at Georgetown Law School, supporting the adage that "no matter where you are, you'll run into someone from Swarthmore."

Ruyter says she "saw the Swattie" in her sponsor, Twan Claiborne '08, right away, and that the experience broadened her perspective on how Swarthmore translates to the real world. In many cases, that broadening went both ways.

"I was impressed by how alive the activist spirit is in our students," says Hendrickson. "My time with them revealed how much the Swarthmore community is involved in important social justice issues, and it was great to be reconnected to that energy."

More information on the extern program and opportunities to help Swarthmore students explore careers is available in Career Services.