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Work Experience Program - student in medical laboratory

CA Curious

Trying it on for size

February 4, 2021

What’s your passion? What motivates you? Where will your curiosity take you in life?  

When you think of that dream job, what does it look like? 

These are important questions, and heady and demanding ones—particularly for high school students caught in the high-pressured whirlwind of college planning and future charting.  

At CA, we’re dedicated to helping our students engage with these life-altering questions by creating immersive learning experiences that expose students to new ideas and new fields of inquiry; by giving our students ample voice and choice in their learning journey; and empowering them to take smart risks, to experiment, and to follow their curiosity where it leads.  

In the Upper School, the Work Experience Program organized by our Center for Community Engagement and led by Dr. Michael McElreath, is just one such innovative initiative, designed to give juniors the opportunity to explore their interests by trying a career on for size. 

Initially born out of a desire to offer students a learning alternative to leading a Discovery Term course, the program has grown in popularity, with over 200 students participating with placements in over 100 sites (Laber-Labs, law offices, hospitals, ground-breaking research centers, NC Symphony, Durham Bulls, and NCSU Aerospace Engineering program and SAS to name a few). 

These work placements aren’t just for show. No inconsequential administrative tasks here; we ask that our collaborators allow our students to do meaningful introductory-level work.  We want our students to stretch themselves and their thinking, to challenge themselves, and get a true glimpse into what it would be like to do the job.  

Along the way, they develop crucial soft skills—leadership, communication, collaboration—and begin the important work of building a professional network that can be leveraged long after they leave CA.  

“Helping students broaden their view and giving them exposure to adults expands their horizons” says Laura Sellers, Director of College Counseling. “There have been many stories from alums who are currently doing work in college based on their time during the Work Experience.”  

Take a look at just a few of the comments that we have received from WEP partners that have hosted CA students: 

“She contributed to the analysis of DNA using electron microscopy. She contributed to the execution of the biochemical assays,” Dr. Oya Bermek, Lineberger Cancer Center UNC. 

“[Your student] is a quick study and did not miss a beat.  She interacted professionally with both clients, legislators, and other lobbyists. She will be a success in whatever profession she chooses,” Ashley Perkinson, Lawyer & Lobbyist. 

“The student was respectful, capable, and independent. I gave her a project to model airplane geometry using an open-source program. She was able to learn about the software from internet resources and complete the task. I also arranged for her to meet with several graduate students from my lab and others. She was good about setting up appointments with them and making the visits. At the end, she gave a presentation to my group on her experience,”  Prof. Ashok Gopalarathnam, NCSU Aerospace Engineering​. 

While such professional and soft skills developed through participation in WEP are important, perhaps most crucial is the increased self-awareness that students gain as a result. To facilitate that important work, the WEP incorporates reflection time for students (where some of the most important discoveries are made).  

Through a guided process, students are asked to reflect on what they learned, what went well, and what they could improve. This time also allows them to deeply process the experience. Was it what they thought it would be? Is it worth further pursuit and a deeper dive? Or, equally important, something to cross off the list and move on from? 

The success of the Work Experience program relies heavily on our community. Our robust and diverse collaborator network is the result of tireless network weaving by Dr. McElreath (for whom I am always so incredibly grateful) and the CCE’s Parental Advisory Board led by current parent and Vice President of CA’s Board of Directors, Trude Bate (thank you!).  

Thanks to their tireless efforts and the countless hours spent soliciting, vetting, and confirming partners, we’ve yet to encounter a student’s interest that we haven’t been able to match with a professional, relevant placement.  

Unfortunately, however, given COVID, things may have to look a little different this year. In-person placements may prove more challenging given COVID protocols. While we are hoping to accommodate the same number of students as in years past, we need to expand our network. 

And that is where you can help:  if you or anyone you know has a business or job that would be willing to host one of our students, please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or Dr. McElreath. 

And juniors, the time is now! Applications for WEP are now open. 

Maybe you are ready to fight for change alongside a local lobbyist? Or learn the ins and outs of managing a professional sports team? Want to get an inside look at video game development? Participate in ground-breaking research that might contribute to a cure for cancer or advance aeronautic engineering. Or perhaps *gasp* you just don’t know just yet (it’s okay!), but have a vague idea that you’d like to discuss and explore.  

Whether you are interested in a pursuing a fervent passion or investigating an emerging curiosity–we want to hear from you!  

Written by Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity and Community Engagement

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