While in high school, most students have a lot on their plate — sports, academics, clubs, and social activities. Finding their pathway in life is another factor that falls on their shoulders.
“We live in an age with heightened anxiety for young people,” Dr. Dan Sullivan, guidance chairperson at Norwalk High School in Norwalk and a Fairfield University professor, explains. “We need to understand the developmental stages of young people. Their thought processes and motivations are going to change, and we need to be cognizant of those changes.”
Students should start thinking early about their plans post-high school. According to Sullivan, jobs of the future might not necessarily require a college degree, so many schools are responding accordingly.
“It’s a pathway mentality,” Sullivan says. “[We] develop a pathway of classes around an area of interest. Everything should be purposeful.” There are several pathways at Norwalk High School, from digital studies to health care.
Karen Chance, guidance counselor at Danbury High School in Danbury, suggests that students see their counselor to prepare for their future career and check out Naviance, software many high schools use that provides students with college planning and career assessment tools.
Chance says many students have an idea of what they are interested in, but some don’t. “Colleges offer exploratory classes and you don’t need to know what you want to major in until your sophomore year,” she states. In college, declaring undecided can help students try a variety of classes and discover a new subject that is interesting.
In the New Canaan public school system, students have the opportunity to complete an internship in their senior year. The program is open to all seniors, but not required. Heather Bianco, senior internship coordinator for the New Canaan public schools, explains that the program is in its eighth year and is thriving. Starting with only 12 students, the program has expanded to include 289 participants (out of 309 students).
Seniors who apply for the program choose a minimum of three organizations in which they are interested (a list is provided) and then write an essay. Internships are available in a variety of categories. A committee interviews each applicant to learn their career goals. Students are given their assignments and begin the unpaid internship in May.
“It creates a nice learning environment,” Bianco explains. “It gives them a chance to see what they like before they go to college.”
Students attend a training seminar to help prepare them for their internships. Topics covered include dress code, email etiquette, dangers of social media, time management, and confidentiality. Also, students are assigned a mentor and complete journals that their mentors respond to weekly.
“They get the experience of dealing with, not their peers, but adults in the business world,” Bianco observes. “At this age, you’re out there and dealing with professionals, and it’s the little things — how you dress, how you write an email to a colleague, how you speak to a manager, and getting to work on time.”
There are many success stories from the program, Bianco says. “We placed a student at a local real estate company and they needed a website. She and another student designed it from scratch. They did the graphic design and learned code, which led the student to pursue the computer side of design.”
Bianco adds, “We’ve had students come full circle. One student interned in the New Canaan public school system eight years ago, went to school to be an educator, came back, and is now a teacher here and has an intern.”
Kaitlin Kearns, a New Canaan High School senior who applied for an internship, plans on majoring in business with a focus on international economics and hopes to get a taste of this field before college.
“I will have the opportunity to apply what I have learned in school in a professional environment,” Kearns explains. “I will finally be able to use the principles I have learned in classes like English, economics and calculus in real-life situations.”
Kearns hopes to learn more about skills needed to be successful in the workforce. “For one of the first times in my life, I will be treated as an adult and will be completely responsible for my work and actions,” Kearns says. “This will help me be better prepared when applying for jobs in the business field when I am older.”
Henry Asker, another New Canaan High School senior, applied for an internship through his school to expand his spectrum of interests.
“I saw it as an opportunity to shed light on some of my interests that I don’t get to explore enough,” explains Asker, who hopes to pursue the field of renewable energy. “I believe that the discipline and work ethic I will gain from partaking in an internship with carry on to whatever I eventually decide to pursue in my life.”
In researching possible careers, Sullivan suggests that students assess their values: What is important to them? What are they good at? What are their talents? It starts with parents, coaches and teachers.
“It could start with a club or activity and that leads them to something to give them a purpose,” Sullivan concludes. “It’s all about finding their niche and finding something in which they are confident.”