The Chronicle of Higher Education: Winter Break, Well Spent
Colleges across the country now offer study-abroad programs, service-learning trips, externship matching, introductions to industries, and guidance when students design their own winter-break explorations. And they help students afford them.
Job-shadowing externships offer students a chance to enjoy winter break, decompress, and then spend a week checking out a possible career path and potentially setting up a summer internship.
Robert Zipp ['18], a senior at Swarthmore College, has done two winter-break externships and is set to do a third this January. In his sophomore year, he was one of four Swarthmore students who shadowed an alumna at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, a nonprofit in New York City. He stayed with an alumnus in an apartment near Central Park.
Swarthmore has a longstanding externship program. Last year it sent 280 students to job sites around the country with alumni hosts. Other alumni host students in their homes during that week. The program, in place for 40 years and in its current form for about a decade, is popular, says Jennifer Barrington, assistant director of career education. More than half of Swarthmore students have done at least one externship by the time they graduate.
Externship placements have included an organic farm, a hospital, education nonprofits, and the World Bank.
"We can open doors they can’t get open themselves," Ms. Barrington says.
Students spend the unpaid week shadowing employees, attending meetings, seeing what it is like to do a certain job. They may experience a variety of related workplaces — for example, one doctor takes students to five different hospital departments over five days so they can see the ER, surgery, and other specialties.
It’s an extensive undertaking that includes recruitment of alumni and parents as job and home hosts, and computer matching of students with their top job choices. The program has more demand than spots available. Last year, 470 students registered their interest, more than 300 alumni volunteered, and 280 students eventually went on externships. For some students who don’t get matched, the college assists them in finding their own externship.
If there is a positive connection and the professional would like the student to come for a summer internship, the student and the mentor can apply together for a paid fellowship from the career-services department. They must describe what the student hopes to learn and how she or he will do it.
Zipp returned to Harlem Educational Activities Fund the summer after his winter-break externship. There, he worked as a teaching assistant, created a writers’ workshop for students, and assisted the nonprofit with communications. He thought he wanted to get a teaching certificate but decided that he might be more interested in helping a nonprofit through fund raising or other support.
That kind of self-knowledge can be as beneficial as the work experience. "They need to try something out before they know they don’t want to do it," Ms. Barrington says. "It’s all valuable data."
And Zipp, who has a lot of interests and worked as the editor-in-chief of a Swarthmore newspaper, isn’t done exploring. This winter break, he’ll be shadowing someone at the online magazine Slate.
The Swarthmore Extern Program is a fiveday job-shadowing experience designed to help students explore a career field of interest. Alumni and parents serve as workplace and homestay mentors during Extern Week, Jan. 16-19.
Zipp is an Honors English literature and political science and educational studies special major from Dover, Del. He works in the Admissions Office, is the Student Philanthropy Council Co-Chair, and was previously the editor-in-chief of The Phoenix.