Take a break . . . and go to work
Converting winter breaks from college into cash - or careers
Jean Pierre Fontanot finished fall semester's exams on a Friday in December and started work at an internship the following Monday. The Bennington (Vt.) College sophomore says he could think of nothing better than earning money and getting work experience over winter break.Skip to next paragraph
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"After you graduate, you've worked for four firms and you can have four recommendation letters for graduate school or a job - that really sets you up," he says. His internship at a Cambridge, Mass., architecture firm will last more than two months. "I'll be tired, but it's totally worth it."
Welcome to the new model of winter break. It used to mean a week or two of hibernating at home, catching up on novels, cavorting with siblings - whatever a student felt like after a hard semester's work.
Not for today's students. Breaks have gotten longer - commonly a month or six weeks - and expectations higher. Students increasingly have a go-get-'em attitude toward vacation time. Even when students would prefer to lollygag, many schools require work or study during break, whether it builds the rsum, broadens the mind, or serves the community.
"There's that all-American ambition," says Alexis Salas, a senior at Amherst (Mass.) College, who for the past two years directed a "winternship" program for Amherst students to work for nonprofits or the government in Washington during the month of January. She says they don't need an all-out vacation: "People who come here stay up late and are used to working hard."
The 4-1-4 calendar
In the 1950s, students had a week or so off at the holidays to return home and relax. Then in the '60s, the winter break started to warm up. Some liberal arts schools joined the "4-1-4" calendar that has a January mini-term between two full semesters - an arrangement that persists today at many colleges.
"The idea was that people were overworked in the regular terms and it allowed them to do something different without being terribly grade-conscious," says Frederick Rudolph, professor emeritus at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and author of "American College and University: A History."
During the energy crisis of the late '70s, some campuses started shutting down for a month or more between terms to save on heating costs - and have never gone back to the traditional calendar.
Students at Williams; St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.; Oberlin College in Ohio; and others have a brief break at the holidays, and then have a month-long winter term when they pursue an individual project or take a single class - often, away from campus.
"Off-campus programs are a strong reason the interim has stayed," says Patrick Quade, director of international and off-campus study at St. Olaf, which sends more students for off-campus study than any other college. January's offerings include a math class taught at the Biosphere in Tucson, Ariz.; a Hemingway course in Havana, Cuba (Americans are allowed to travel there for educational purposes); and "Literature of Wilderness in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota."
"It's all experiential learning," Mr. Quade says. "Instead of being in a classroom, they're out snowshoeing.... They have a very visceral experience."
The Williams program stresses that the winter study period is a chance to take advantage of campus films, lectures, concerts, and other extracurricular activities that students find hard to fit into their schedules during the regular academic terms. Mini-courses range from ones in Greek philosophy, or the Vietnam War in literature and film, to less academic ones in cooking, glass-blowing, or automotive mechanics.
Branching out, not letting loose
But even in a term designed for students to explore new areas and not worry as much about grades or requirements, many of them are not letting loose.
Avi Raina, a junior at Williams, is spending January immersed in business economics. "If I go for a corporate job, I can put that down on my rsum," he says.
For Rebecca Thompson, a first-year at Oberlin, winter term means intensive Latin. "I've heard of a pastry class, and one of my friends is going to Australia to learn how to surf, so I guess Latin kind of pales in comparison," she says. "But I've always wanted to learn Latin and never got around to it."