Last month, 752 seniors in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District graduated from high schools North and South and prepared to move on to their college and then professional careers.
One group of seniors got a head start during their final year in high school by participating in the district’s Senior Internship Program, which gives students an opportunity to have meaningful real-world working opportunities before they graduate, says program director William Totaro, a business teacher at High School North.
The program started about 13 years ago, which was around the same time that Totaro started teaching at High School North.
“As part of the curriculum, the superintendent at the time thought that the school needed a senior practicum or senior option-type program in order to enhance the [schools’] Blue Ribbon status,” Totaro said in a recent interview.
More importantly, Totaro said he believes the program helps students expand their interests outside the school environment.
“As students go through their high school career, they are most likely waning in their interest in the classroom,” he said. “They start to think about practical experience, college and what they want to do with their life. So if (these students) could actually go and work in a position, it would be much better than sitting in another class. If they can get a taste of real work early in their career, this could be really invaluable to them.”
The program begins around the end of junior year, during the senior class scheduling process. Totaro interviews rising seniors, starting with an application process where they list three of their career choices. He then matches them with careers that he has available.
There are more than 50 companies who are willing to partner with the district in the program.
“If we can’t find a corporation that we’ve previously worked with, it’s my job to understand and pursue a career location where they can get the most experience,” Totaro said.
Students in the program first take the 2.5 credit Senior Practicum course, where they learn about career development, setting goals and parameters, networking and financial information to pay for college.
During the second half of the year, students intern at companies that have been vetted and interviewed by Totaro.
“My job is to solicit and interview the companies, give a basic list of expectations we have for the company and the expectations they should have for the student,” Totaro said.
While many students choose to intern at locations like the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro, Totaro has seen students make some unconventional choices.
“The coolest one was when I had a student at the Robbinsville Airport,” he said.
The student’s goal was to get into flight school and the enter the U.S. Air Force. Since he was a licensed pilot, he was qualified to give lessons. He flew every day as part of his internship. As part of his project, he brought in his flight simulator.
Four seniors who graduated last month—Melina Cahnbley, Lejf Rossi, Jon Logan and Tanishq Aggarwal—all participated in the program, and shared their experiences with the News.
Cahnbley, 18, who went to High School North and will attend Minnesota State University, said she plans to major in exercise science with an emphasis on pre-physical therapy as a result of her participation in the program. She worked at Princeton Spine and Joint Center in Princeton.
Cahnbley said she first heard about the program from a fellow senior at North. “It sounded like something I would love to do,” she said. “I knew since my sophomore year that I wanted to go into physical therapy and was actually in physical therapy for a knee injury.”
She said she asked her physical therapist if she could work with her as as part of the program she agreed. “What really interested me about the program is that I would be able to see if physical therapy was really what I wanted to do, especially since it would require seven years of college and a doctorate,” she said.
During her junior year, Cahnbley described her career goals to Totaro as becoming someone who could help change the field of physical therapy in a way that would make more people open to it.
“A lot of people think physical therapy isn’t for them because they are not an athlete, or don’t have any major injuries, but it really can benefit almost everyone’s lives,” she said. “I wanted to understand patient flow, the general workings of a physical therapist and the material you do not see as a patient.”
During the Senior Practicum course during the first half of this year, she learned about the importance of writing a good resume and cover letter. The class provided students with tips for interviews and how to sell themselves as being the best candidate for the job.
During her internship at Princeton Spine, Cahnbley said she learned a great deal about “how the field of physical therapy continues to expand and how new techniques are constantly being added to someone’s program of care.” She said that she also learned about things like the proper way to interact with patients and what sort of questions to ask.
“After seeing the interaction between physical therapists, sport medicine doctors, and chiropractors, I am even more excited to enter this field,” she said.
Cahnbley added she thinks more seniors in the district would benefit from participating in program.
“I think what is so great about this program is being given a chance to see how your desired field is first hand, and to figure out if you still have the same enthusiasm to go into that field as you had before,” she said.
Rossi, 18, went to High School South and will be attending the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a dual major in computer science and information technology.
Rossi said he decided to do the senior internship after realizing that he had five free periods and nothing that the school offered interested him. He met with Totaro and told him that he wanted to stay in IT, but also had an interest in media.
He ended up working at Big Star Graphics with the company’s design and animations team and helped assure that they had the tools necessary to complete projects.
Rossi said that as a result of his internship and the Senior Practicum, he believes he is more ready for real world challenges. Within the Senior Practicum, Rossi said he “learned pretty much everything needed to navigate the real world, from taxes, to budgeting, to investing, to buying a house, to interviewing for a job.”
As a result of his internship, Rossi has “learned a lot about what the expectations are, and the values of employers. I’ve also learned that nobody really knows everything, and the most valuable quality you can posses is being humble.”
Rossi said the program also showed him that professional world is a lot different than a school classroom.
For Logan, an 18-year-old who went to High School North and will major in strategic communications at Elon University, the program gave him an opportunity to explore one of his interests—theater.
Logan said that when enrolling in the program, he told Totaro about his passion for theater, performing, storytelling and the arts in general. Totaro set up an internship for him at Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College.
While at Kelsey, Logan helped with box office management, set design and construction, prop refurbishment and creating makeup pieces.
“I learned how to use mechanical tools safely and effectively when building sets, learned wood painting and staining techniques, and learned the complicated process of scheduling a season of shows to accommodate all outside factors,” he said. “Outside of theatre, I learned responsibility and organizational skills from the real world job environment that was presented to me.”
While he isn’t planning to major in theater in college, the internship made him realize that he has a genuine love for theater and a new-found interest in behind the scenes work.
“I find a career in theatre very intriguing and would be open to pursuing it, although nothing is set in stone and I still have other options to consider for my career once I enter college,” he said.
Aggarwal, 17, who graduated from South, will be attending Cornell University this fall. While he had always planned to major in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) field, his experience with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory as part of the Senior Internship program has opened up the doors to a possible major in applied physics.
Aggarwal worked on PPPL’s Interactive Plasma Physics Experience project. IPPEX is a website that houses a number of PPPL’s science education department’s public projects, such as its remotely controllable plasma physics experiments and other demo projects it has made.
“I decided to work on a set of educational modules to help explain the physics behind plasma physics and nuclear fusion to the public,” Aggarwal said. “These modules take the form of interactive simulations and experiments that I’ve designed to enable their users to gain a more hands-on understanding of the physics.”
Aggarwal already had a strong computer science background, and his work at PPPL gave him experience in the fields of animation and simulation as well. He said it also gave him access to a “hotbed” of scientific activity, such as sessions on Wednesday afternoons hosted by NASA astronauts and leading physicists.
“I’ve always been set for a career in STEM, but this internship really opened my eyes to the incredibly huge potential of nuclear fusion as an accelerator for human civilization—it’s an energy technology that’s safe, inexpensive and efficient,” Aggarwal said.
Overall, the Senior Internship program has continued to be successful as a result of the students, Totaro said.
“Our students are the face of the program, they are the face of the school,” he said. “The only reason the program is successful is because of how well they’ve performed over the years.”
While Totaro understands the focus on AP and honors courses, he believes the value of the Senior Practicum and Internship is more than any normal classroom experience.
“All the admission officers that I’ve talked to say that any Senior Practicum or Internship on a transcript weights a lot heavier than AP classes,” he said. “These internships are invaluable to the students, because it really adds to the overall learning and growth of the student.”