Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Swarthmore’s decades-old externship program provides students a peek into a week of real work experience. The program, managed by Assistant Directors of Career Services Jennifer Barrington and Kristie Beucler, matches interested students who apply online with an externship through a random, computer-generated lottery.
Unfortunately, as has happened in the past, there were not enough spaces available for the over 370 students who registered for the program this year, although over 280 alumni volunteered as either workplace sponsors or home-stay hosts. 250 of the registered students ended up being matched and were given the opportunity to be active participants in a work environment for a few days.
Taking an externship is a good career choice, Barrington pointed out. Students build their resumés, gain skills and connections, and often pursue summer positions with the site of their externship – sometimes receiving funding from Career Services to do so. “These [students] now have a contact within their field . . . it turns into a mentoring relationship,” Barrington said.
The alumni volunteers truly represent the nucleus of the program. “We are absolutely so grateful to our volunteers, the alumni, who make it all happen,” Barrington said. “We’re also so impressed by the students, who want to take a week from their break and go and learn.” And this time is seldom wasted on those who participate. “They make the most of the week,” Barrington said. “It’s very impressive what Swarthmore students can do.”
The following are four externship experiences from this year’s program, representing a diverse range in terms of location, profession, and responsibilities allocated.
Tikkun magazine: Spirituality, worldview, and word clouds
Themes ranging from LGBT rights to the Israel and Palestine conflict make up the core of Tikkun magazine, a Berkeley-based spiritually-influenced publication. Damella Dotan ’15, who has a lifelong interest in social justice and a “utopian ideal of the world,” had the chance to be part of the discussion when she externed at the magazine’s office. She surrounded herself with discourse that challenges that utopian convention under Alana Price ’04, who serves as Tikkun’s managing editor.
During her week with Tikkun, Dotan read submissions to the magazine and suggested either acceptance or rejection. With fellow externs Sam Pellegrino ’15 and Suness Jones’ 16, Dotan discussed many submissions and tried to decide whether they “fit with the line of work the magazine was trying to produce.” They also talked about how to make these pieces even better. Dotan worked putting up blog posts and made a word cloud for the magazine’s newest edition.
“I thought it was a really cool way to spend a week,” Dotan said. “We did things that seriously mattered within the magazine and got to grapple with content.”
Working at Tikkun exposed her to a group of individuals as passionate as she is. “The most rewarding [aspect] was getting to talk with the other externs and hear their ideas,” Dotan said. “Listening to the editor talk was [also] very interesting – he had a very interesting perspective on the world.”
The experience certainly exposed Dotan to new ways of thinking. “It made me think about religion and spirituality a bit more. It made me question my own beliefs about the world,” she said.
Pareto Captive Services: Insurance company provides scintillating experience and conversation
Enlightening conversations, on campus or off, tend to be the unexpected upside of being surrounded by people who have a lot to share with each other. For Zachary James ’13, exposure to a group of engaging young professionals, many of them Swarthmore graduates, was a surprising perk of externing at Pareto Captive Services in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, a group that provides health services for small to medium size businesses. Talking with his temporary colleagues provided him a glance into a possible future – or at least into the working world, a glance most seniors are anxious to receive.
Both Pareto’s President Andrew Clayton and Managing Director Andrew Cavenagh attended Swarthmore. James also met other alumni working at several other companies sharing an office with Pareto. “The big thing that stuck with me was the Swarthmore network . . . how valuable a thing that is,” James said.
He recalls one specific conversation that was especially meaningful with Christopher Rose ’05, who majored in economics at Swarthmore. Rose was working for a small investment bank, something James had never considered for himself, but the discussion painted it in a different light – a positive, possible future. James also took away the message that “there is a life beyond school,” which he said he was relieved to hear. At one point, Rose confessed that he has used linear algebra exactly zero times in his line of work, which James also appreciated.
In addition to talking with employees in the office, James also did a fair amount of independent work for the company. Part of his daily duties included what he describes as “white paper” work – explaining technical ideas to a non-technical audience, a very different experience than academic writing. Learning how to explain concepts to someone without an insurance background provided a challenge. He also performed a lot of necessary data entry. The most valuable part of his time at Pareto, however, was being able to view the presentations that each company in the office made for each other.
Although James remains ambivalent and unsure about his plans for the future, his experience at Pareto gave him an invaluable look at what could be. “[It] made me more excited to go apply for jobs and be out in the real world,” James said.
Inspiring children to love words at Spells Writing Lab
In Philadelphia, kids can go to the Spells Writing Lab for more than just help with homework. They inevitably get roped into the ethos of the place – that writing and reading are not only useful, but fun. Sanaa Ali-Virani ’15, an aspiring writer herself, externed at Spells this winter, where she connected with the cause on a personal level.
Christina Dubb ’97 is the executive director. Ali-Virani worked closely with the programming director on a variety of creative projects for the students who visit Spells after school for homework help, writing workshops and activities. Among her duties were planning a writing workshop for Martin Luther King Day based on the “I Have a Dream” speech, rearranging the library based around a theme, and planning an indoor writing- and drawing-themed scavenger hunt for the children for a rainy day when outdoor recess wasn’t possible. Ali-Virani also tutored in an after-school program and helped come up with fun writing activities for the students.
“I’ve been obsessed with reading and writing since I was a kid,” Ali-Virani said. “Around late elementary school, early middle school I made the decision to focus on improving my writing. Ever since then, it’s sort of been my ‘thing I’d like to be when I grow up.’ My dream is to be an author.”
Ali-Virani’s internship at Spell also aligned with her potential interests in education and children. “Lately, I’ve been thinking more about teaching. [Spells] seemed to be a good mesh of my interests,” she continued. Much of her job as an extern was in line with Spells’ central goal: inspiring kids to enjoy reading and writing and not just view it as a chore. For Ali-Virani, being able to transfer her passion to kids was incredibly satisfying. She recalls one student she was tutoring who was acting stubborn and disinterred until someone engaged him in a board game that incorporated addition and subtraction. Seeing the transformation in him really stuck with Ali-Virani, encouraging her further in her plans to be involved with education.
Civil Rights Law in Upstate New York
Rachel Berger ’16 externed at the office of civil right lawyer Michael Sussman in Goshen, New York. Some of her duties included researching a witness for deposition and looking at photographs from a crime scene to help determine the cause of a car accident. She was also asked to decipher a 6-page handwritten letter by a female inmate at a local prison seeking legal advice. “Definitely the most rewarding aspect was getting to talk to such a diverse group of people,” Berger said. She was also exposed to Sussman’s colleagues and diverse clients, for cases ranging from pro-bono to million-dollar settlements.
Berger said she applied for her externship because she had always been interested social justice and in helping those who may not have the means to navigate the legal system on their own.
“I was interested in a law externship because I know very little about the day-to-day logistics of being a lawyer. I wanted to see if law school was something I wanted to have in mind as I continued school. My externship gave me a really great opportunity to do just that – to be immersed in the life . . . it helped me think a lot more about what I wanted, how I want to live in the future,” Berger said.