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.

"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."

Giving students a chance to branch out is an aim of many schools' winter terms. Since 1969, Oberlin has required students to participate in winter term three of their four years at the college. In addition to the courses on campus, such as "Mozart's Operas," or "Reading the Red Scare," about witness behavior during the McCarthy era, some study is conducted out of town. One student designed her own program to learn Zen meditation in Minnesota this month. A faculty member is taking students to the Virgin Islands to study coral reefs; another group, led by an alum, will tour ancient Mayan sites in Mexico.

Alumni, who often recall getting a lot out of their own winter-term experiences, are frequently eager to help current students with projects or internships. Oberlin alumni Aaron Levin, a freelance science writer, and Pamela Hines, a senior editor at Science magazine, will tutor three students in Washington on how to write general-interest science stories.

"For years I have been getting questions from students about the career track to writing about science," Ms. Hines says. "This is a nice opportunity for students to experience a new environment or career option."

Students at Bennington have no choice: For January and February, classes are replaced by the Field Work Term, during which students find internships or pursue research.

"It's what everyone wants," Jean Pierre Fontanot says. "You study to work at last."

Ryan Bird, a Bennington first-year, is interning in management at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. "I'm used to being busy all the time, so I'm not used to vacations and don't like them," he says, adding that his friends are not complaining either about the lack of a long vacation. "It's two months to earn lots of money to come back and buy books for next term."

Study abroad - for less

Break is also an opportune time for foreign travel and study. A month away is more affordable than an entire semester, and winter travel rates are less than during summer or fall.

Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., requires some form of international study before graduation and has designed mini-terms abroad during its Thanksgiving-to-January break as one option to fulfill that requirement.

Sean Spindler-Ranta, an engineering student at Union, is earning money by working at a local engineering firm and fulfilling his international requirement by participating in the school's International Virtual Design Studio class. Union students form teams with their counterparts at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, and design robots together by working via the Internet, e-mail, and videoconferences. During the last week in January, they'll meet for a week-long competition in Turkey.

Classes at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., also end at Thanksgiving and don't start again until January. "We decided a few years ago ... to use that break as a benefit rather than a blank for students," says Elizabeth Cinar, associate dean of the college.

Two fall courses include a field trip abroad during the break: An art class on Van Gogh and Rembrandt travels to Amsterdam in December, and an ecology class goes to Costa Rica. Carleton spends about $20,000 to lessen expenses for students and is planning to expand the program.

"Usually I come home and get a Christmas job at a mall, but this was such an amazing opportunity, I couldn't turn it down," says Caroline Batten, a Carleton senior who took the Amsterdam trip last month. She used money from her jobs during high school and working in the art department's slide library to pay for expenses not covered by Carleton.

Others do not have that leeway in their budget. "A lot of students have to go home and get jobs," says Peter Hocking, director of the Howard R. Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "That's an economic reality of higher education today."

Even on a tight budget, however, more students are devoting themselves to community service during vacation.

A student group from Brown is working with homeless organizations in New York City. Last year, a team helped build new stages and studio space for arts organizations in Providence. In addition to the students' own fund-raising projects, the university contributes half a million dollars annually for the community-service program.

"We get a good mixture between students doing regular volunteer work who want to do it intensively," Mr. Hocking says, "and those who because of heavy academic loads don't have time to take on volunteer work, and this is an opportunity for them to do something meaningful."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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