Mishel Figueroa ’18 had always dreamed of being a doctor. But just as she was about to come to Swarthmore, thoughts of being an engineer whirred through her head.
She didn’t need to commit to either path in her first year, but was eager to have a plan. So when she embarked on a week-long externship at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J., in January, she hoped it would help tip her decision.
“It was one of the most amazing and eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had,” says Figueroa of West New York, N.J, who followed physicians and staff through various rotations and got real-time lessons in the operating room.
“I was in awe the whole time,” she adds, “learning and observing everything I could. It helped me decide to commit fully and enthusiastically to a career in medicine.”
Figueroa is one of more than 200 Swarthmore students who participated in Extern Week over winter break. 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 sent three other students near West Palm Beach, Fla., over their winter break — not to lounge by the pool but to get their hands dirty at an urban farm.
“I thought it would be interesting for Swatties to get a glimpse of a career choice that is probably pretty far away from what most of them would imagine they will do with their lives,” says Jackie Vitale ’09, manager of Ground Floor Farm. “They helped us with seeding, planting, harvesting, and market prep,” among other responsibilities.
Vitale and her co-founders battled logistical challenges in trying to open the farm to the public on time, but their resolve taught Weite Liu ’16 a lesson.
“Unexpected things happen all the time, and if you want to be a leader, you need to be calm, prepared, and ready to react to the unexpected,” says the chemistry major from Beijing, China.
Back in decidedly un-sunny Swarthmore, Jessica Jowdy ’16 helped to investigate a personal injury accident with engineer Dan Honig ’72. His meticulous measuring, photographing, and analyzing of the scene brought Jowdy’s textbooks to life.
“I found it gratifying to know that the material I learn every day is applicable to real-world problems and situations,” says the engineering major from Newtown, Conn., and that “I can utilize my engineering skills in a creative way.”
The extern program fanned students all across America and beyond, from New York City investment banks and Bay Area tech companies to Paris, France, where Alice Kim ’15 worked at the TV station France 24, and Panama City, Panama, where Nathan Scalise ’16 contributed to a jazz festival. Rachel Flaherman ’16 made soap at the Bubble Farm Soap Company in Alameda, Calif., and Adina Zucker ’17 and Joshua Gregory ’15 tended to alpacas at a Maine farm run by two alums.
The through-line of all of these experiences, however, was the mutually rewarding interaction between students and alumni.
“It’s wonderful to hear about what’s new at the College and to have the opportunity to talk about my work with students who bring a fresh perspective to it,” says Eliza Cava ’06, who mentored Erick White ’15 and Kelly Hernandez ’18 on a public lands project for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C.
“Right from the start, I was impressed by how eager [Emma Giordano ’18 and Reid Pickett ’17] were to learn about my career path and to discuss their own plans with me and my colleagues,” adds lawyer Jamie Cardenas-Navia ’07, who had the students argue both sides of a pro bono legal case.
Also picking the brains of her hosts was Christine Yao ’18, who heard both the pros and cons of particular rotations and career paths from Cooper physicians.
“Hearing the downsides of a career in medicine helped me grasp a better sense of my future,” says Yao, of Lexington, Mass. “It was nice to hear about the career in an un-idealized, unfiltered way.”
In most cases, Career Services arranges the externships, but the students sometimes take the initiative. Canaan Breiss ’16, a religion and linguistics major from Egremont, Mass., called freelance manuscript expert Carin Ruff ’87 to arrange his externship, for which he didn’t even leave his dorm room.
“Since I’m working on [a digitized manuscripts project] from home, there’s not much to look at in propria persona, except for me staring at my laptop,” says Ruff, who emailed digitized images and texts to Breiss and spoke to him via Skype.
“We'll credit him with a contribution to the content-development side of the project, and he'll get some digital humanities experience on his résumé,” says Ruff. “Success all around! And I should add that I came away very cheered to find that Swarthmore students are just as awesome as always.”