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It’s a commonly asked question: What do you want to be when you grow up? As a child this question might seem easy to answer, but when students get to high school and begin to give it serious consideration, it can be difficult to decide which career is a good fit.

Enter Laurie Kennedy, certified internship coordinator at Williamsville South High School. “I think every student should do an internship,” said Kennedy. “It’s an application of what you’re learning (in school) in a work environment.”

The program at Williamsville South offers students a chance to make connections and develop “job skills for life.”

To begin the process, Kennedy interviews students, who “express their career interests.” Then, she said, “I work to find an internship site related to that career.”

For some students, Kennedy’s task is simple.

Alexa Draman, a senior at Williamsville South High School, had a good idea of what she wanted to do.

“I always knew I wanted to go into education,” Alexa said.

Kennedy helped place Alexa in an internship with Catherine Truesdell, Alexa’s “all-time favorite teacher” from Mill Middle School.

“I knew, because she was a teacher I admired, that I wanted to intern with her,” Alexa said.

The internship exceeded Alexa’s expectations. “I only thought I was going to be able to observe, but Mrs. Truesdell gave me a lot of free rein in the classroom,” she said.

That free rein included forming and executing lesson plans and grading papers when she worked in the classroom three days a week.

“Being hands-on in the classroom solidified that I wanted to do education” as a career, said Alexa, who plans to study elementary education at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. Alexa valued the experience, saying that she “was able to experience things that a typical 16-year-old never would.” In addition, the experience made her feel like she was making a difference in the community: “I’ve met some kids that, a year later, I know will still remember me, and I know I made an impact on their lives. That’s worth it to me.”

Internships also can help students rule out careers. Kennedy said some students “have a preconceived idea in their mind, but it’s not until they’re out there alongside a professional and see what the person does day in and day out that they find ‘yes, this is what I want to do’ or find out ‘it’s not what I thought.’ ”

Sara Galante, a senior at Williamsville South, approached the program wanting to pursue a career in crime scene investigation. The summer after her sophomore year, Sara worked with the Town of Amherst Police Academy, where she realized that real-life CSI is different from the TV show. Her internship experience helped her cross this career off her list.

When Sara discussed her thoughts with Kennedy, mentioning an interest in business, Kennedy placed her in an internship position at Pairings Wine Bar on Main Street in Williamsville. There, Sara learned about marketing. Her duties included updating the restaurant’s Facebook page, designing fliers and a new takeout menu, and sending emails to patrons. Sara enjoyed the “relaxed, non-intimidating” atmosphere.

“It was nice because I got to set my own schedule,” she said.

The position later yielded a paid job: Sara works at Pairings periodically to continue some of the work she did during her internship. Moreover, Sara values the skills she learned in the internship program’s classroom component: She learned how to effectively format a résumé and write a cover letter as well as some business basics. She and her classmates presented final projects on their prospective careers that were tied into their unique internship experiences.

The internship at Pairings made Sara realize that she likes business as a career, but, she said, “I want to focus more on the numbers.” She plans to study accounting at Canisius College.

The experience also has made her more aware of her surroundings: She said since the internship, “I pay more attention to the local businesses. “I had driven by (Pairings) every day and never really noticed it.”

Internship experiences often transform not only students’ identity as a worker but also as a citizen.

Megan Morris, a senior at Williamsville South, did an internship the spring of her junior year. When she talked with Kennedy about her interest in politics, Kennedy recalled that State Assemblyman Ray Walter had mentioned he was looking to hire an intern. Megan was matched up with his office, and the experience was life-changing.

“I went into (the experience) as a solid Democrat – Ray Walter is Republican – but I came out more middle-of-the-road libertarian,” Megan said. “I plan to register Republican.” Regardless, she says that after the experience, “I’m a more educated voter.”

Megan partly ascribes her change in party identification to the “heated discussions” regarding gun control she had with the assemblyman and the other two staff members at Walters’ Main Street district office. It was around the time of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, so gun control was a hot topic.

During the internship, Megan got to set her own schedule, mail “welcome to the neighborhood” letters, send out voter registration forms and perform tasks such as helping the assemblyman “prepare for meetings with constituents.” She got to see firsthand the casework that she had been learning in her AP U.S. Government course. Megan also got to meet other local politicians, such as area judges and Amherst Town Board members.

The experience helped her decide on a career choice.

“I don’t want to run for office; I want to have that job behind the scenes,” Megan said.

She plans to attend the University at Buffalo in the fall. “I will enter undeclared, but I’m leaning toward political science, and this (internship) definitely had something to do with that.”

Megan said she and Walter parted on excellent terms: He offered to write her letters of recommendation. Megan also believes the connections she made during the internship will help her gain internship positions in college.

In addition to providing her with career insight and connections, the internship has illuminated parts of the political system for Megan.

“I would see constituent letters coming in, and they (Walter and the staff) would actually read them,” she said, adding that it showed her that, to politicians, and especially to Walter, “constituents are important.”

At the end of the day, Kennedy describes her job as rewarding and gratifying, not only because she has helped students answer the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” but also because the internship program has given students “a chance to meet people that they otherwise would not have met and ... gain firsthand knowledge of what a career is really like before they commit to a major in college.”

So instead of students tackling the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” perhaps they should consider “what do you want to be now?” A good answer might be, “an intern.”

Kaelyn Timmins is a senior at Williamsville South High School.