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Hands on Internship programs give students a real experience of the working world

When they were younger, kids who want to be doctors played Operation. Kids who want to be stockbrokers played Monopoly. But what are teens supposed to do when they are expected to shell out thousands of dollars in tuition and jump into a real career in just a few short years?

In the past few years, many schools have attempted to ease the transition from high school to the career world by integrating internship opportunities into their curriculum.

"If they have an interest in a career, it allows them to see what it involves before they go to college and spend thousands of dollars toward a degree that they may find out, their junior or senior year, that they don't want to do," said Susan Siuta, a business teacher at Alden High School who spearheaded the inception of an internship program there.

This fall, Alden has implemented the Career Exploration Internship Program into its curriculum. The program is certified by New York State and is comprised of classroom course work paired with a nonpaid internship for credit. Alden juniors and seniors in the program must complete 108 hours of field work and 54 hours of class time during the final block of the school day to receive one credit.

Many other students throughout Western New York are able to have internship experiences with the help of the National Academy Foundation. Schools associated with the Academy Foundation give students the choice to join an academy, such as finance or education, to take career-oriented classes and possibly hold a paid internship.

Internships held by Western New York students over the years have ranged from accounting to zoology. Most business teachers agree that education, health care and law have routinely been the most requested fields. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in requests for graphic arts, publishing and video game design internships.

While many times students have wonderful experiences that confirm their career choice, it is still considered a success when a student walks away from an internship with an entirely different career goal.

The latter was true for West Seneca East graduate Amanda Pugahoff, 17. As a student in the Academy of Finance, Amanda spent last summer earning $10 an hour at her highly coveted Citigroup internship, where she worked in the billing department creating spreadsheets and sending procedure descriptions to Citigroup employees in India.

As great as the experience was, Amanda will be pursuing pharmacy at D'Youville this fall.

"I went to my internship every day and sat at a desk, and I realized I couldn't do this for the rest of my life. Sitting at a desk all day was rough for me. It was very repetitive. We did the same procedures and used the same programs, every day."

For other high school interns, the internship opens up new opportunities they never could have expected. When no internship in the psychology field could be found for 17-year-old Maryvale senior Rebecca Dennee, she was placed at Purrfect Paws, an animal behavior center on Sheridan Drive.

Rebecca soon found her niche helping with play groups and training the animals. She now plans on majoring in animal behavioral psychology at Houghton. After the internship ended, Rebecca asked her boss if she wouldn't mind giving her a summer job.

"We ask them to do a lot. We don't put them into a room filing. We want them to get a hands-on experience, to get involved and work as part of the team," said Miranda Workman, the president and CEO of Purrfect Paws. "Rebecca, she was very quiet in the beginning. She was a little overwhelmed. But now that we actually gave her a job for the summer, what really surprised us was her willingness to jump in and really take on the responsibilities we were giving her. It's kind of exciting for us, because we gave her an experience that is going to influence her career path."

Sometimes, the skills students learn during their internships assist them far beyond securing a summer job.

"These students have been able to make good choices, good decisions, and good networking, in terms of letters of recommendations. Many students do pursue a career in that internship, and I think that kind of ignites them even more for focusing on their senior year. Even as times are now getting tougher, I think students can make a better choice about their future," said David Mellerski, the business teacher at Williamsville East who has been running the CEIP program since 1993. He figures that since he began, about 5,000 Williamsville students have completed the program.

The life of one of those students was forever changed by his internship. During the summer of 1997, Chris Malagasi interned for U.S. Rep. Bill Paxon. The experience not only taught Malagasi important skills, but further instilled him with a passion for politics. Since graduating from Williamsville East, Malagasi has worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, Fred Thompson, and John McCain, founded the Young Conservatives Coalition, and now teaches a class on political activism at American University.

"More than anything, it exposed me to a lot of different things that I hadn't considered. Sometimes in high school, you get caught up in the bubble of things, and you don't think about your career before you get to college," said Malagasi. "I don't think I'd be where I am without those programs, because they taught me things a classroom cannot teach me."

It is this hands-on learning that draws students into these programs more than anything else. Williamsville East senior Bethany Murphy, 17, spent the summer interning for attorney Wayne Freid because not only has she always had an interest in it, she wanted to learn firsthand how the law in real life compared to all the courtroom dramas portrayed in movies and television.

"You get so much more experience when you're actually there, not like watching 'Legally Blonde,' or something. You get to see everybody in the office, and they're all doing their own separate job. These were real people doing real things. When you're a teenager, you don't really think about it. It's very serious, and I think it's very good that I get to see that it's not all like a movie or a TV show. It makes it more real for me."

Carlene Miller is a senior at Alden.

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