For a group of New Canaan High School seniors, the last four weeks of school took place not in the classroom, but in the back rooms, showrooms and conference rooms of businesses and nonprofits in the area.
The Senior Internship Program, which just finished its third year, offered high school seniors unpaid internships to give them a bit of work experience before heading off to college.
"One of the reasons I did it was that I wanted a change in venue, and after having a stressful four years of high school, I wanted to get some work experience," Kate Howard, an intern at M Milestones stationery store on Forest Street, said. "I got to learn about mundane things like cleaning, to the merchandise of the store, and how they got to pick products."
The program took applications from students during the winter and paired them up with local businesses based on students' interests. In the spring, the interns received training classes on subjects such as resume writing, how to dress professionally and office etiquette. Soon after, they were sent off into the 9-to-5 world.
Three years ago, the program had about 22 students. This year, it had 39. While that number is expected to continue to rise, the intention is to keep the program small, so that the internships retain their value.
"We're very proud of the program and of the integrity of the program," said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tucker Murphy, who helped find participating businesses. "It is all about the quality, not just the numbers game."
At M Milestones, Howard participated in some strategic decision-making for the business. She traveled, along with owner Dan Mulhern, to a stationary trade show at the Javitz Center in New York City where she picked out a type of paper to buy with Mulhern's approval.
Mulhern said that although there was time spent training Howard, she provided utility to the company, completing office work and offering new ideas.
"The advantage of an intern is having someone who has a fresh perspective on the business," he said. "Once they figure out the business, they can sometimes ask very good questions and give good opinions. A portion of our client base is her age, and when it comes to technology, it was helpful to have someone her age to have perspective on that, like Twitter and social media, and how important it is."
The internship program also informed the interns about aspects of the corporate world they wouldn't have expected.
"It was interesting because I knew I was interested in maybe becoming a lawyer, and I was able to go into the courtroom and see some of the actual stuff that goes on," said Emma Gruber, who interned at New Canaan law firm Hawthorne, Ackerly & Dorrance. "You see it on TV and you think, `Oh, this is going to be so exciting,' and it was exciting but it was more about real estate and estate planning."
But it didn't turn off Gruber, who will attend Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., in the fall, to the discipline of law, though she said she may change her focus more onto business in school.
While at the firm, she had her own desk and shadowed David Hoyle, an associate at the firm.
"He gave me different projects, like typing up corrections to a letter he had to send out, and shredding and shredding and shredding," Gruber said. "I also did a lot of research and got lots of information about what cases were about."
Her research and questions were helpful for the firm as well, Hoyle said.
"She was an asset, definitely an asset. She was incredibly attentive incredibly engaged. She asked relevant questions. A couple of days she answered the phones for us when we were short staffed. She was able to draft client correspondence for us as well," he said. "I was impressed with the program overall. Her mentor came to us about a week before and briefed us about the program. I know they spoke to them about looking people in the eye and shaking hands."
At M Milestones, Howard said she learned how the tempo of business work can differ from that of schoolwork.
"The biggest thing I learned was how to prioritize," she said. "There would be some days that weren't as busy on the floor, or some days a client would come in, and I'd have to stop working and then go back and pick up where I left off whatever project I was working on."
New Canaan High School guidance counselor Jane Mitchell said she thinks the SIP is great.
"I think for students who are interested in a career while in high school, this is the perfect introduction to the world of work," she said. "I wish they'd had it when I was in school."
One aspect of the program is that the students involved don't take final exams. Their grades are frozen where they are at the start of the internship. Mitchell, who is also a student mentor in the program -- each student has one faculty point person -- said that hasn't been an issue.
"The teachers are informed that this person is going on an internship, and we have to make sure that they are students in good standing," she said. "I think our teachers are very supportive of the program. The people who are mentors are, by and large, on faculty, and include the principal and vice principal."
Once the students graduate, the internships are not necessarily over. Murphy said many students were asked to stay on as employees for the summer, including Howard and Gruber. Gruber, however, is away for the summer, but Howard will work one day a week, in addition to teaching tennis at a country club, and will help with the sidewalk sale on July 20.
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