Photo by Jeff Saxman
For Audrey Fain, an interest in television production led to a summer internship and a chance to produce a pair of unaired TV commercials after her junior year at St. Catherine's School.
"I had a two-week internship with local independent film editors and producers," she says. "I produced my own [commercials] and worked on casting, wardrobe, locations and got the equipment. I did all the production."
As a senior, she worked on Bucket & Skinner's Epic Adventures, a show being produced for the Nickelodeon network — it premiered in July — to learn more for her senior independent project. At the Tom Lynch production company in Los Angeles, Fain spent time with the writers and in various departments, including casting. She met with executive producers and line producers, and suddenly her perspective shifted, she says.
"When I sat down in the different departments, I got to see all the different jobs available in the production world that are not just the director or the producer. I saw the different options I can do in this field."
Fain, who graduated from St. Catherine's in May, credits her alma mater with providing meaningful hands-on experience and networking opportunities that enabled her to narrow down possible career choices. The 18-year-old is now headed to Boston University, where she will likely major in film or television production.
Test-Driving a Potential Career
From guest speakers at career days to internships and special projects involving every student in a specific grade, area private schools offer traditional and innovative opportunities to introduce students to various professions and workplace environments. The road to a satisfying career can be winding and lengthy, but teachers say getting middle- and high-school students to test-drive a potential career through experiences that augment classroom learning provides a head start on that journey.
At the Singleton campus of St. Michael's Episcopal School in the Stony Point area, all seventh-graders explore a career they are interested in by completing a research paper that requires them to set up interviews with their selected expert. Teacher Donna Granski says her students have interviewed top neurosurgeons, a forensic-science teacher and even NFL running back Tiki Barber. While working on their research papers, students have traveled to Andrews Air Force Base to interview a pilot, to New York City to meet with a creator of masks for Broadway plays and to California to interview a dolphin specialist.
"I even had the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech trying to find a bear trainer," Granski says, recalling one student's memorable interest. "We've had some incredible experiences."
Austin Brigforth, now 23, interviewed Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps for her research paper, though at the time she was not especially excited about the idea. At 15, he had yet to become a swimming legend.
"I just had my heart set on interviewing Jenny Thompson, one of the most decorated female Olympians, but her agent said she did not have time," Brigforth recalls. Instead, she was given the chance to interview Phelps, who had competed in his first Olympics.
She remembers that she initially thought he was "a kind of goofy teenage guy" without a driver's license. Her family drove her to Maryland so she could watch him practice and then do the interview. By the time she returned home, she was impressed by his drive and focus.
A physical therapist, Brigforth has worked as a summer swim coach in recent years at the Southampton Recreation Association. Her seventh-grade research project is one of her fondest memories of school, she says.
"It was great meeting a positive role model who is a professional athlete promoting a positive lifestyle," she says of Phelps. "He was close to my age, doing great things. I knew I wasn't going to be an Olympic swimmer, but I knew I wanted to do something health-related. Physical therapy was the best fit for me."
While the research paper, called I-Search and written in the first person, can help some students understand what it will take to be in their chosen career one day, for others it helps them understand that a particular job may be a mismatch for their interests and skills.
"It's wonderful for a student to investigate something and then learn ‘It's not what I thought it was, and I will not pursue this,' " Granski says.
A Motivating Experience
For Abigail McNelis, a 2011 graduate of Saint Gertrude High School in Richmond's Museum District, an internship with a cardiothoracic surgeon confirmed her desire to pursue a career in medicine. Three weeks of making the rounds and changing into scrubs to observe open-heart surgeries, some lasting up to seven hours, was an enlightening and motivating experience.
"I watched some heart surgeries, which were a lot of valve-replacement or repair surgery. It was really awesome," and nothing like her favorite medical television shows, says McNelis, who is headed to Penn State University to major in pre-medicine this year.
"This whole internship just totally reaffirmed my drive to do something in the medical field," she says. "It was great. To actually go around with the surgeon to see what he does all day totally gave me a new perspective. It was eye-opening."
Saint Gertrude also helped her and other students learn more about various positions by encouraging students to volunteer for service projects, she says. Her passion for HIV prevention and research led a teacher to encourage her to volunteer at a camp for teens with HIV. "It was a volunteer position, but it had a lot of responsibilities," such as making sure the campers ate and took their medications, she says.
McNelis' internship was part of the new Discover Leadership Program at the all-girls school, says Maureen Williams, director of admissions and marketing. The program brings in speakers to talk about their careers. Another aspect involves internships.
"As sophomores, they take an interest inventory so they can think about what they like to do and where that can take them," she says. "We get them thinking pretty early on. They give us two career options they would like to explore. We place them around the city. This year, we have girls at different foundations learning about marine biology or science, in a doctor's office and hospitals and working with restaurants and caterers because they are interested in culinary arts. One girl is working with the Virginia Film Office on a movie being shot here.
"Our alumnae base is fantastic," Williams says. "They are a big help. If they don't have anything in their particular business, they will help us with contacts. It helps me to build a library of contacts."
The internships can vary in length, but students have to complete a minimum of 20 unpaid hours. When they return to school, they make presentations about their experiences.
Learning by Doing
At the Orchard House School in Richmond, an 80-student private school for girls in fifth through eighth grades, the focus is "helping girls understand their identity and finding their voice," says Rachel White, leadership coordinator. Guest speakers, especially women in leadership positions, come in to share their stories and answer the girls' questions.
The school, located near Lee Circle, also emphasizes learning about various jobs by doing them. For example, fifth-grade students plan and run the school store. "They build it from the ground up every single year so they know what's it like to run a business," White says. The students figure out how to do everything from marketing to inventory. Doing so helps them to realize their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the contributions they can make. The requirement for sixth-graders is to take the store's profit and learn how to invest it. As seventh-graders, they apply for grants from places such as the Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia to create a bigger impact with the investment.
Another example of learning while doing involved the older students, who last year created the curriculum for preschoolers at St. Joseph's Villa in Henrico County. "They let us come there, and they gave our girls free rein to teach," White says. "Our girls did a lot of research on that."
Many schools hold career days, a popular and time-tested way to expose students of all ages to various professionals and the world of work. At St. Catherine's, alumnae are encouraged to carve out time to spend with students in grades 9 to 12.
"It is important to show our students positive female role models," says Theodora Miller, director of marketing and communications at the school, in Richmond's Westhampton area.
"Each spring, graduates return for Reunion Weekend, of which more than 20 participate in career day, sharing their stories, experiences and advice from industries such as communications, technology, entertainment, finance, medicine, law, architecture and design," she says.
Some of the recent speakers included Ginny Reynolds Parker, CEO of Parker Global Strategies; Catherine Currin Hammond, chief judge for Henrico County; Ginny Sutton Turner, head field-hockey coach at Davidson College; Virginia Stettinius McMullan, director of contracts and grants for the Rainforest Alliance; Louise Irwin Welch, career development manager at Google; and Susan Lavington Welther, vice-president of marketing for Sterling Publishing.
The alumnae talk about the importance of risk-taking and building relationships, while also dispensing career advice.
"There are lots of special visitors to classrooms and guest speakers in chapel," Miller adds. "Exposing our students to the world and preparing them for leadership is so critical."
Another component introducing students to possible careers is St. Catherine's internship program, a joint initiative with St. Christopher's School. Some of the internships rising seniors are doing this summer in the Richmond area include research with the VCU Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, as well as work with various doctors, dentists, law firms and the Virginia Equine Clinic.
The schools' X-Term Program allows high-school students to explore learning opportunities outside of the classroom during the school year. Students can choose from a variety of options, including international travel. One student interested in pursuing religious studies traveled to Israel and Jordan for her senior project. "It's really a chance that when they get to the X-Term in their senior year, they can define what they want to do," Miller says.
That's what Fain, the graduate headed to Boston University, did when she secured her weeklong stay at the Tom Lynch Co. in Los Angeles.
Now Fain will start her freshman year with a solid idea of what she wants to do. For that, she appreciates all that her high school did to help her visualize her future. "My summer internship really set [my direction]," she says. "When I got a chance to produce the commercial, I saw a different production side."
For these students, the internship is a career preview that can seal or break the deal.