Internship experience invaluable

September 20, 2002|By Thomas Belton

HADDONFIELD, N.J. - Now that my son is back at college, the house has taken on a more sedate, gentle demeanor, somewhat akin to a monastery.

But in truth, I already miss the boy. Life isn't the same without a 19-year-old and his messy friends laying around to innervate the hothouse days of August - someone who sought throughout the summer, newer, kinder ways to kill my car.

I'd like to think that the summer was well spent for my son after his first year at college. He worked at the Patrick Center for Environmental Research in Philadelphia, a field-oriented think tank that performs research in conservation biology, environmental protection and sustainable growth studies.

He worked with professionals, albeit as a field grunt - heavy lifting and stubborn donkey tenacity were more in order than higher mathematics - but the projects introduced him to career scientists, fisheries biologists, foresters and chemists. They are people who use their brains for a living and are at the terminus of a long line of natural philosophers such as Aristotle and Descartes, thinkers who sought to reconcile the world into orderly axioms that might help guide human behavior - something we call environmental protection today.

On any given day through the incredible heat of this past summer he could be up to his waist in water netting fish to see if dam removal was a viable option for bringing sediment-choked rivers back to life or rappelling down cliffs on an urban forestry project.

When I was in college, available summer jobs were usually of the manual labor ilk. I loaded trucks or laid rails on the graveyard shift for the subway, which brought me into contact with the working class heroes of our society, something that a middle class kid needs to see as well.

But there is something to be said for spending time with professionals; it gives a kid, with no more interest in the world than a baseball strike, a chance to understand that there are myriad ways to make a living and interact with society in ways that stimulate the brain.

Last year at New York University, my son was dispatched to a student internship in a Bronx high school. He worked with an English teacher who had the unenviable task of teaching poetry to inner city kids. His solution was to use a companion text of rap music lyrics. My son found himself tutoring students older than he was, seeking common ground with the vernacular of the streets.

I was happy to hear how much he enjoyed it, how impressed he was with the teachers. Because it's not just about the books and the tests, is it? That's really just the opening act. The real story comes after college, and if we don't prepare our kids for it, the world that follows can swallow them whole as they wait around for a lucky job opportunity to come along.

Thomas Belton is a free-lance writer who lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

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