Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2004


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Reaching for their Futures

Reaching for their Futures

CELS program brings jobs, internships and graduate school within students´ grasp.

Barbara Nagy

It´s after 4 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, and the 22 sophomores in Room 213 of the Blaustein Humanities Center have settled into their seats. Textbooks, workout gear and cell phones spill onto the floor from the backpacks at their feet. The light outside is fading to an inky gray, and it´s easy to imagine that these students would rather be getting ready for the buffet lines at Harris with their friends.

They have buckled down first, though, not for a lecture about history or botany or literature, but for a 90-minute workshop that promises to teach them something about their personalities. The leader is Cheryl Banker, a counselor with the College´s career-development program known as Career Enhancing Life Skills or CELS. She is energetic, personable - and relentlessly cheerful.

"It´s Friday night," she postulates. "Do you unwind by going out somewhere or would you rather stay home and watch TV?" The students puzzle over the question and wonder what their answers say about them.

Banker has won their attention. But her engaging style is not why they are here.

Without this workshop and a series of others offered by CELS, these students won´t be eligible for a College-sponsored internship the summer after their junior year - or for the $3,000 stipend that comes with it.

The coveted internships are a central part of Connecticut College´s career services program, a program unique for its holistic, four-year approach to uncovering a student´s interests and developing post-graduation plans. The class of 2004 is the first to work its way through all four years of the new program. This approach, and the early successes, are giving CELS a new prominence on campus.

"Career development is not something that happens at the end of your education," said Deborah Saunders Dreher ´89, director of the CELS. Working with seniors isn´t enough, she said. "You don´t just place people. They don´t come in knowing where they want to go," Dreher said.

"They come in with questions."

CELS means to complement the College´s liberal arts focus, not take away from it. Dreher still encourages students to major in whatever they´re interested in, be it classics or history or economics. With early planning, careful choice of electives, and extracurricular activities, those majors have many options after graduation, she said.

Rachel Levin, a senior art history major from Princeton, N.J., said CELS was an "irreplaceable resource" as she wrestled with questions about what she wanted to do after graduation. Levin knew even as a freshman that she wanted to work in a museum. A trip to Venice her sophomore year sharpened her interest in that field, and the next summer she worked in the curatorial department at the Smithsonian´s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

She handled paintings and managed museum records, but the experience wasn´t what Levin thought it would be. Something was missing. She came across a group of staff members who were working on a program for a children´s group and was envious.

"They looked like they were having a lot more fun," Levin said. "I wanted to work more with people."

Levin went to Rome for the spring semester of her junior year to study Italian and art history. That summer, she worked as an intern planning tours for school groups at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum initially hesitated to offer the post, but was ultimately swayed by the promise that it could have Levin for free. The College was essentially paying her wages with the $3,000 stipend.

The experience that summer was a revelation for Levin. She learned that her passion wasn´t so much for handling and cataloguing artwork, but for helping visitors understand what they were seeing at the museum.

"I just fell in love with the place," Levin said. She loved asking students questions, getting them to think and watching them connect with the artwork.

"You could see their eyes sort of light up when they got it," Levin said. "I enjoyed it immensely. If I could do that for the rest of my life and get paid for it, I would." She hopes to teach for a year in Italy and then get a master´s degree in museum education.

CELS set Levin´s course by helping her learn about her interests, giving her the means to pursue them, and showing her how to meet people outside the College who might help. Counselors work with students to define career goals, choose courses and activities that are in line with those goals, and build a resume that backs the student´s post-commencement objectives. The idea is to help students learn about themselves before they start thinking about a career.

A four-year plan

The program is simple:
Freshmen start by creating an electronic portfolio in which they can catalogue their high school and college accomplishments. They also can do an on-line personality assessment.
Sophomores take a series of three workshops geared toward identifying their interests and skills. They use the information to build a resume and to make choices about classes, activities and a junior-year internship. Sophomores must also meet at least once with a CELS counselor.
The object is to get students to think about why they´ve made the decisions they have. Are they following a certain path because that´s the path most students are traveling? Have they considered other options?

Counselors start with the basics: Why did the student choose a liberal arts college? Why Connecticut College? Was there a particular department they were interested in? A certain curriculum? The answers can provide hints about a student´s interests, Dreher said. The e-Portfolio, which details a student´s skills and accomplishments, can also provide clues. And it gives the students confidence to pursue a certain dream when they realize what they have already accomplished, Dreher said.

For juniors, the focus is on finding an internship that matches their goals. In the first of four workshops they´re required to take this year, they examine their personal values. The second and third cover resumes, letters, interviewing skills and the search for an internship. The fourth is a primer on how to make the most of an internship. Juniors must meet at least twice with their CELS counselor.

Seniors evaluate what they´ve done, what they´ve learned and where they´re going. They are expected to submit a paper about their internship and are encouraged to weigh whether to review or revise their goals as a result of the experience. Then they map out their plan for grad school, a fellowship or a job. The workshops are critical. They start after classes and extend far into the evening to accommodate students´ schedules. It´s not unusual for a counselor to get an e-mail at 3 a.m. with a question about a resume or an internship. Technology makes it easy for the counselor to reply the next morning - when the student is probably sleeping.

Getting alumni involved

Dreher is eager for alumni to get involved by creating internships at their workplaces, being mentors to students, or even helping to underwrite costs. As more students sign up for internships, the $3,000 stipends accumulate quickly, she said. "Do the math," she said. "It´s a huge financial commitment." Alumni who have been mentors say the experience is rewarding. They enjoy giving something back, appreciate the new connection with the College and get a kick out of seeing students learn and grow.

The junior-year internship is critical not only because it gives students a real-world feel for their career. Employers increasingly like to see that type of work experience on the resumes of the recent college grads they´re looking to hire. Jack Tinker, who heads CELS´ job-placement program, said internships are especially important when the economy is weak. They help students stand out among the competition, he said.

CELS´ staff of 11 has offices at Vinal Cottage, where the one-time living room has been converted to a library and dorm rooms upstairs are counselors´ offices. Downstairs, the library is dominated by four sturdy oak tables that were pushed together to create a large work area for students. Walls are lined with shelves holding books about everything from nursing and divinity school to fashion design, environmental services and social work. Notices about law school admission tests, fellowships and job fairs are tacked on scattered bulletin boards. The College began expanding its job-search services in the late 1980s, as enrollment was soaring nationally in career-oriented programs like business, engineering, computer science and health. Many other liberal arts colleges launched career programs as well - not only to help students, but to reassure those who might be worried about finding a job with a degree that isn´t geared to a specific type of job.

Connecticut College´s program became more structured five years ago. Workshops were defined, the focus became more holistic and the College began offering $3,000 stipends to cover internship expenses.

Why the stipend? It demonstrates the College´s commitment to career development, since internships are important for the boost they can give students, Dreher said. The stipend also opens internships to all students who meet the requirements, not just those who can afford to work without pay. Most career-related internships pay nothing - especially in the arts and community service, two areas of strong interest among Connecticut College students.

"We want the opportunity to be available to all students," Dreher said. CELS counselor Julia Browne said some students use the $3,000 to cover expenses during their internship. Others try to find a post near home so they can live with their parents and save the money.

The stipend is a significant incentive for employers, not just students. "It opens up doors that would never be there," Dreher said. "For most companies, it´s hard for them to resist that offer," said senior John Taggart Boyle, who found an internship with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

A dream realized

It was the stipend that won senior Kelly Melillo, an environmental sciences major from Hamden, Conn., an internship last summer with marinelife researcher Kathleen Dudzinski. Melillo had admired Dudzinski since high school, when she saw an IMAX film about her work with dolphins.

But when it came to a career choice, Melillo thought "I want to work with dolphins" sounded like a child´s unfocused fantasy. Her CELS counselor, Browne, encouraged Melillo to pursue her dream anyway and see if she could make something of it. A CELS staffer started researching Dudzinski and sent Melillo information on how to contact her. Dudzinski discouraged internships, but Melillo sent off an e-mail anyway and said she could work for free because of the Connecticut College stipend. The incentive got Melillo the job. She spent the summer of 2003 photographing dolphins in Bimini as part of a project that identifies and tracks them over time. "I did work that grad students do," Melillo said. "I got to swim with dolphins. It was just incredible." She plans to go back this summer before heading off to a fellowship and then grad school. In the meantime, she´s working with Dudzinski at the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium.

Students aren´t the only ones who love the internships. So do parents. "It´s liberal arts, but with a practical component," Dreher said. She said students who go through CELS are twice as likely to have jobs at graduation. Dreher has no way of knowing whether the program is a factor in persuading students to enroll at Connecticut College, but is certain after last year´s freshman orientation that word about it is getting out to them. Dreher typically announces her name to the new students and asks how many have heard of CELS. The number of raised hands has grown steadily in the past couple of years. But last fall Dreher got a surprise. "When I announced my name they clapped," she said.

For the career counselors at CELS, internships serve another purpose: They are the carrot that gets students into the program early, so they can use all four years of college to plan their futures. Those who don´t complete the sophomore- and junior-level workshops can´t get the $3,000 stipend. To qualify, students also must use the e-Portfolio, meet periodically with counselors, and find an internship related to their academic studies. The search is good practice for the job or grad school scouting that they´ll do later.

Fear of the job search used to keep students out of the career services office until the middle of their senior years. Their attitude was, "I don´t want to think about it. I´m a student," Dreher said. Seniors would show up in a panic after Thanksgiving break, pushed to action by the pointed questions and stern lectures of their anxious parents.

Not surprisingly, the number of juniors taking advantage of the internships jumps every year. In the summer of 2003, 65 percent of all Connecticut College juniors had an internship of some sort. The number of CELS internships - there are other campus programs that also work with students to find summer job opportunities - hopped 40 percent from 2002 to 2003.

Students go around the globe, literally, to find work. Last summer, destinations included an environmental institute in Belize, a family planning consortium in Ethiopia and a group mapping glaciers in New Zealand. In the United States, students worked at an architecture firm in Skokie, Ill., a financial services company in Portland, Ore., and a youth center in Middletown, Conn. Nationally, the number of U.S. students in internships is mushrooming as well. The number going overseas has doubled in the past 10 years, according to the Institute of International Education.

But Connecticut College remains unique for the comprehensive combination of services and tools it gives students. Other colleges offer workshops, help with internships or provide an electronic portfolio. But none tie everything together into a cohesive program like Connecticut College´s, Dreher said. Melillo, who also is a peer counselor at CELS, said the program gives students a time and place to think about what they want to do. That was true for Boyle as well. He lived at home in Bryn Mawr, Penn., during his internship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. To save even more money, he also worked nights and weekends at a restaurant.

As an intern in the academy´s marketing program, Boyle helped design exhibit cards - now a prominent piece of his e-Portfolio. He also helped inventory all the artwork in the museum vaults. Being able to see the academy´s entire collection was incredible.

The internship plus the CELS workshops helped him figure out that a career in a museum wasn´t right for him. It hit him during one workshop in particular, as he was picking out adjectives that described the type of place he wanted to work: someplace fun, where he could be creative and be part of a team. He is looking for an arts job in public relations, marketing and advertising. "CELS is a great program," Boyle said. "It´s sometimes better to know what you don´t want."

As the second semester of their last year at Connecticut College began, some students had already landed jobs - to their own surprise.

Know thyself

Back in Blaustein, Banker is trying to make that point to the 22 sophomores in front of her. She is intent on drawing them out. What they are learning about themselves, she says, will help them find ideas for internships - to say nothing of their life´s work.

As the students unwrap Tootsie Pops provided by Banker, she hands out neon-hued worksheets and talks them through a detailed personality quiz. She poses a series of questions:

Do you prefer to study in the library or in your room with the door closed?
Do you like structured deadlines or working at your own pace?
"I´m the type of person that needs a deadline. I need to know what´s expected of me," Banker offers the students as an example.
She continues: Do you unwind by partying or would you rather be home watching TV?
The question puzzles a student at the front of the room.
"It depends," she says.
"On what´s going on?" Banker asks.
The student nods.
"Think about how you naturally are," Banker advises. The student leans over her desk and jots something on one of the green sheets Banker handed out.

By the end of the session everyone has a sheet that describes their personality type and suggests careers that might fit it. In the near term, Banker tells the sophomores, the information will help them find ideas for internships. "There´s no right or wrong," Banker says. "Some things come naturally to some people. They don´t come naturally to others."

Learning what those things are is one of the most important tasks these students will take on during college. The answers, after all, are the foundation for much more than a satisfying career.

Connecticut College Magazine

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