Clearing a Path
So much for “winter break,” Billy Yang ’19 could have been forgiven for thinking.
Yang spent his final respite before the spring semester not under a palm tree or in a Netflix daze but at Essex Farm and CSA in upstate New York. The alarm clock went off at 5 a.m., the tough farm work went until dusk, and the winter chilled his bones.
Yet the experience “exceeded all my expectations in all possible ways,” says Yang, who reaped work and life lessons from farm co-owner Mark Kimball ’94.
“He was charismatic and energetic, and he shared many inspiring stories,” says Yang, of Inner Mongolia, China. “Just being in the same room with him gave me a charge, and his personality is so unique that I learned what it takes to be a leader and an entrepreneur.”
Yang was one 269 Swarthmore students who participated in the annual Extern Week over winter break. Administered by Career Services, the program matches students with alumni, parents, and friends of the College who work in fields of their interest. The students shadow – and in some cases live with – their mentors, gleaning indispensable experiences and insights and strengthening intergenerational bonds at the College.
"Alumni mentors help students to make important, and sometimes stressful, career decisions," says Kristie Beucler, who co-manages the program with fellow assistant director of Career Services Jennifer Barrington. "They help them feel confident in making the decision to pursue a career path based on concrete, real-life experiences."
Also immersed in the great outdoors were Justine Albers ’17 and Max Katz-Balmes ’20, who externed at the Muir Woods National Monument with Alison Campbell ’87. When a redwood fell across a main trail, the students joined park rangers and maintenance and trail crew to assess the impact. Among the considerations: will more trees fall, are the trails safe for visitors, and how can we arrange the trunks to provide habitat to species on the forest floor and creek?
“Justine and Max were very impressed by the collaboration among different departments and agencies and by the complexity, variety, and urgency of issues being considered,” says Campbell, retail manager for the Golden Gates National Parks Conservancy of the Muir Woods. “Seeing four newly fallen redwood trees up close is an experience they are unlikely to forget.”
The extern program fanned students all across the United States and beyond, from Wall Street investment banks to Silicon Valley tech companies. Students also spanned the globe, including Mosea Esaias ’17, who traveled to Ukraine to interview persons affected by its eastern war with photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart ’94, and Jasmine Jimenez ’19, who shadowed Daniel Cohen ’79 at the Ibiza Adult Education School in Spain.
The through-line of all of these opportunities, however, was the mutually rewarding interaction between students and alumni. Call it a “cross-cultural exchange” for studio artist Claire Brill ’89, who hosted a student from Nepal, a student who was raised in Korea, and a student who deeply identifies with his mother’s Ethiopian culture in her suburban Philadelphia art studio.
“We discussed everything from food to schooling to gender norms,” says Brill, owner of Mosaic Spaces in Media, Pa. “I hope they enjoyed the dialogue as much as I did!”
For one week, the students lived the life of an artist. Much to the surprise of Tiye Pulley ’19, that meant spending half of the time outside of the studio, interacting warmly with contractors with whom Brill deals and community centers in which her art delights.
“I’d been kind of boxed in to this idea of the artists as isolated and reclusive, and art as a private and personal experience,” says Pulley, of Annandale, N.J. “This [externship] really broke that conception and, as an artist, challenged me to push my understanding of what I can do with the art I make.”
Also enlightened by his time at Mosaic Spaces was Won Chung ’18, a computer science major with little direct exposure to art and culture.
“Even on the first day, I realized it was fun and refreshing to create things with my hands instead of watching a computer create it for me,” says Chung, of Haverford, Pa. “It was both fulfilling and exciting to explore a path drastically different from the one I had chosen.”
There were tangible benefits to the experience of Aayushi Dangol ’20, as well. Too timid to try a studio arts class at Swarthmore, she explored the interest at Mosaic Spaces.
“After spending a week with [Brill] and seeing how she works, I found that I’m really happy in the studio, and much more confident and inspired,” says Dangol, of Kathmandu, Nepal, who is now happily enrolled in a foundation drawing class.
At the other end of the spectrum was David Yelsey ’17, who zeroed in on the intersection of tech and finance and hoped to parlay his externship into a job. While spending a week at Summit Securities in New York City, where he worked closely with quantitative traders, Yelsey forged a fondness for the organizational culture.
“The biggest thing is that everyone there is both super smart and super passionate about what they’re doing,” says the computer science major from Pelham, N.Y. “Everyone there works hard and is really into what they’re doing, which was really cool to see.”
Yelsey fit right in, says Summit Securities CEO Marc Rieffel ’94, using his communication skills to build solid relationships with employees in just one week.
“In presenting himself professionally and conscientiously," Rieffel says, "David represented Swarthmore well."
For Daniela Wertheimer ’17, who loved every minute of her rise to editor emerita of The Phoenix, the externship program offered a chance to explore a different realm of journalism. She spent the week at a flagship NPR-affiliate station WHYY-FM, sitting in the control room for shows like Fresh Air and Radio Times, and developing a story for radio. But the highlight may have been sitting in on editorial meetings, at the onset of the inauguration of a highly unconventional president.
“What should we report on, and how should we go about it?” says Wertheimer, a sociology and anthropology major from Phoenix, Ariz. “It was exciting to see professionals grapple with these types of difficult questions.”
“One of the things I like best is reconnecting with people with the Swat ‘spark' who are engaged with the world and curious,” says Eugene Sonn ’95, audio news director for WHYY, who hosted Wertheimer. “It reinforced my love for the college and the great people it attracts.”
“Both asked lots of insightful questions, were able to quickly pick up on the roles of different kinds of people and groups in the organization, and related many of the points we discussed to ideas they had learned and debated in international development classes at Swarthmore,” says Anderson. “As always, my time with a couple of Swarthmore students reminded me of the creativity and passion that Swatties bring to most things they set out to do.”
Three other students made an immediate impact at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute of the Harvard Law School, which focuses on race and justice. With only four or five employees, the office has no shortage of work, and attorney Ana Apostoleris ’13 asked the students to enhance a website on community service projects from around the country.
“It was pretty spare before the externs came in,” says Apostoleris. “But right now, I’m looking at a 12-page Google doc that they put together, with great research on community justice acts and organizations.”
“She also had us meet with people she worked with who are at different points in their careers — graduate students, post-grads, and other researchers,” says Andersen, an engineering and astrophysics special major from Saint Charles, Ill. “It was really helpful to get a lot of different viewpoints and to see that not everyone necessarily takes the same route.”
Few students are as familiar with the perks of the program as Aaron Wagener ’17, who finished his third externship this January. He explored his interest in buildings and architecture with mentor Ethan Landis '84 at Landis Construction Group in Washington, D.C.
“When I look back on what was really valuable about Swarthmore, there will be a lot of things on the list, but I think this program will definitely stand out as something that was special about the school,” says the Honors mathematics major from Burlington, Vt.
That praise for the extern program is very common among students and mentors, who relish the opportunity to trade insights and perspectives. They also enjoy comparing notes on their Swarthmore experiences — even if it can be mildly disconcerting.
“It's like when my dad talks about playing gigs with his band in Mephistos when he was a student," says Apostoleris, "and I'm like, ‘Dad, nothing happens in Mephistos anymore.’ I guess I'm that old alum now.”