Friday, August 6, 2010

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Oh, The Places You’ll Go
Weston and Wellesley Put Careers into Focus

Cheryl B. Scaparrotta writer

Margaret Irwin’s class of Weston High School’s truffle master chefs

It’s a jungle out there. Over the past two years, headlines have been dominated by the themes of recession, layoffs, corporate greed, and Congressional inquiries, which makes it an especially confusing time for young adults pondering what they want to be when they grow up, and how to get there.

For some teens, embarking on a career in line with the family’s longtime profession—such as Wall Street finance or corporate law—seems unappealing, as those jobs have suffered tarnished reputations. For others, there’s hesitation about pursuing a particular career track, for fear of hitting a dead end after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on higher education.

To solve some of their puzzlement about the future, forward-thinking high school faculty, staff, volunteers, and parents in Weston and Wellesley are doing their utmost to inform, encourage, and prepare high school students for the world of possibilities that awaits them after their formal education has concluded.

“The whole idea [we communicate to students] is to follow your passion,” says Cliff O’Connor, a history and business teacher at Weston High School. “It’s about finding out what you love, and going with it.” Weston High hosts a “Career Day” every other year, with over 150 diverse professionals coming to the school to shine a light on career paths, everyday responsibilities, and to offer simple words of wisdom.

“Oftentimes, teens give up their passions when they hear adults say, ‘oh, there’s no money in it,’ or ‘there aren’t enough jobs in that field,’” says O’Connor, who co-chaired the 2010 Career Day Steering Committee. “But we want students to get a broad a sense of what’s out there.”

Weston Career Day 2010 Steering Committee members and parent volunteers

Similarly, Wellesley High hosted an extensive array of professionals, from stem cell biology researchers to diplomats, at their annual Seminar Day last spring. “The program is a way to enrich the curriculum and the student experience at Wellesley High School,” says Lynne Novogroski, Assistant Principal for Student Affairs. “We try to find a wide range of speakers who are able to share their careers, their interests, and their passions with us.”

Getting to Work

In affluent towns such as Wellesley and Weston, it’s assumed that young adults are better equipped than most to make lifelong choices. “But in some ways, kids in our community live a sheltered life,” O’Connor points out. “Although they are worldly, they are only exposed to a small number of careers.”

To prove his point, O’Connor asks seniors each year to write down every job they can think of. “The most I ever get is 50, when in reality, there are about 3,000 careers,” he explains. “So the aim of the Career Day program is to open their eyes to the options out there, and how interests can be combined, such as sports and journalism or business.”

Students agree with this line of thinking. “[Career Day] is a wonderful opportunity to look at such a wide variety of careers available, and to get honest opinions from the people who work in them,” confirms Sarah Cravatts, a member of Weston High’s class of 2010, who was in attendance last spring.

Dancer Jose Eric Cruz

Among this year’s professional guests were an FBI agent, a novelist, and a cancer researcher from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the cancer doctor,” recalls Ben Kupper, who was a senior and has since graduated. “He made his work seem very appealing, and I enjoyed learning of the fulfillment that can be gained from such work.”

“The program is really the highlight of the school year,” enthuses Susan Gula, co-chair of the 2010 Steering Committee, and parent of a recent Weston High graduate. “What makes Weston’s programming so special is that we’re dedicated to customization, because we take student feedback seriously.”

All 800 or so Weston High scholars attend, and the Steering Committee combs through every student evaluation from the previous Career Day, to take pointers to heart as they plan the next one. “For example, we ask what career is of interest that might not have been represented, and we go forward with it for the next time,” Gula says.

The district’s Career Day began in 2000, sparked by a late 1990s federal school-to-careers initiative that sent some funding to the local community. Today, Weston’s Career Day has evolved into a collaborative effort among sponsors that include the Weston Education Enrichment Fund Committee (WEEFC), the Weston PTO Creative Arts Council, parent volunteers, teachers, faculty, and staff.

“Career Day really engages the entire community, because many of our speakers are from Weston,” Gula points out. “We’re lucky that they are willing to take time away from their jobs to appear.”

Another differentiator of Weston’s Career Day is the committee’s uncanny ability to land keynote speakers who generate excitement among the teen crowd—a proven tough audience. In 2010, the keynote speaker was John Jacobs, co-founder of the popular “Life is Good” clothing and accessory line, who shared his journey from a struggling, but upbeat artist, to owner of a multi-million dollar company. Previous keynoters include former Celtics player and coach M.L. Carr, and Alec Sulkin, a Weston native who is a writer and producer of the TV show Family Guy.

Caribbica Island Band entertains during lunch in the cafeteria

“Creating a buzz ahead of time is our goal—we want great anticipation for this event,” Gula states.

Weston students unanimously praise Career Day, mainly because adults are able to demonstrate how they turned what they love into a career.

“John Jacobs was a refreshing success story, when compared with the backwards and corrupt ways people can make money these days,” said Nick Hugon pointedly, a graduate of the class of 2010.

“The entire day is very well put together and organized, and I was able to see my top choices and learn more about the professions I’m interested in,” adds Gabrielle Wertheim, another graduate of the class of 2010.

The guest speakers themselves also become energized from the positive vibe they get from students. “The time and effort the organizers put into this day was tremendous,” says Jill Nilsen, editor of WellesleyWeston Magazine. “And students asked the most interesting questions. Overall it was a great experience for everyone involved.”

A Job Well Done

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Whenever you’re asked to do a job, say, ‘Sure I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.”

It’s in this spirit that Wellesley’s high schoolers put together Seminar Day each March. The entire program is run by the student congress, and on the appointed day, classes are cancelled so everyone may partake in the rich variety of sessions. “We work hard throughout the academic year to extend the Seminar Day tradition that has existed at Wellesley High for at least 20 years,” explains Claire Grosel, a co-chair of the 2010 Seminar Day committee.

Career Day 2010 coordinators Cliff O’Connor, Susan Gula, keynote entertainer Jim Mendrinos, Jen Sieber, and “Life is Good” founder and keynote speaker John Jacobs

The 70 speakers who came to Wellesley High this past spring included the town’s police chief, Terrence Cunningham, who discussed a 1999 town murder, and relayed what steps detectives had to undertake as they went about their investigation. Meanwhile, State Representative Alice Peisch provided an inside look at the legislative process, while sportscaster Mike Dowling of WCVB-TV in Needham told the youngsters what his job entails. Wellesley High School principal Andrew Keogh related his career in education, while another guest articulated his participation in the Harvard Negotiation Project.

But perhaps the feather in the day’s cap was the presence of Noam Chomsky, the philosopher and political activist. “One of our students on the planning committee simply e-mailed Chomsky at MIT, and asked him if he would appear,” recalls Novogroski. “Sure enough, he did!”

Much like Weston’s biennial Career Day, Novogroski says Wellesley pupils are enthusiastic about this annual event. “Some of the seminars fill up very fast, so you see students literally running through the hallways to get to the next speaker.”

Tremendous hard work is put in by Wellesley’s student committee, including a technology division that ensures each guest speaker has exactly the right tools to get their message across.

This collaboration among students, parents, volunteers, and community leaders pays off exponentially, enlightening young adults to the wide world that awaits them.

Professionals benefit as well. “Even those who are very accomplished in their field are constantly learning, and the act of speaking in front of teens gives them an opportunity to expand their skills,” says Gula. “I’ve received feedback from [Career Day] speakers who say it was a refreshing experience.” The same consensus is true among Wellesley’s professional guests.

“Ultimately, the goal is to show young adults that they can be successful in any career,” concludes O’Connor. “The overriding message is, if you find something you love, you will be good at it.”

 

 

© 2010 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher | Beth@ElmBankMedia.com