January 23, 2013 | LXXII, No. 43

What you can get for free, if you’re willing

In Other Words

With the holidays in the past, it seems that the darkest, coldest days of the year are upon us. But any student will tell you that with the advent of the second semester of school, it is just a quick downhill slide toward summer.

For high school students, especially those who are just about to graduate, there might be a level of anxiety that comes along with this rapid approach to the end of school. What will you do after school? Some of you, undoubtedly, will be looking for work to fill those long summer days.

When I was in high school, my peers and I started to think about our resumes, whether for college applications or an internship, or what we referred to as that mythical “real job.” The first things generally to go on one of these resumes were babysitting jobs, or perhaps lifeguarding at the local pool. Because I was relying heavily on both my athletic and academic abilities to help me to get into the college of my choice, I brushed off the importance of those resume-filling jobs for another day.

Then one year just after the holidays, I realized it would be to my benefit to get a good job over the summer break, one that could go on my official resume, something that a future boss might be impressed at even after I finished school. But who would be willing to hire me? I was still in school, and my job experience was limited to the babysitting and lifeguarding category. In other words, nothing having to do with my chosen career path.

It was then that I stumbled across an organization called the Student Conservation Association. A non-profit group, the SCA is charged with giving young people hands-on experience working in outdoor stewardship or conservation-related jobs. A strictly volunteer organization, they place both high school and college age students in jobs that match with their interests or career paths.

For the first time, I was offered an opportunity for a real career boost, to really get something worthwhile to put on my resume. Even then, I knew this opportunity was available because I was willing to do this work for free. In fact, just being accepted into the program was a life lesson: never underestimate the chances people are willing to give you if you are prepared to do something for free.

From my dorm room in Massachusetts, the prospect of spending a summer in the mountains of Idaho, based in the exotic-sounding town of Coeur d’Alene sounded like a dream come true. The work I would do was free, but my compensation included a free place to live and a $50-a-week stipend for food. The free room turned out to be an RV I shared with another volunteer. Cramped quarters and a very minimal food budget, but we were only blocks away from the beautiful Lake Coeur d’Alene, and as a student, my food expectations were fairly low.

The summer I spent there turned out to be more than just a line on my resume. It was a life experience that I would never change and gave me valuable insight into the career path I had chosen at that time. I spent most every day that summer deep in the woods doing menial work, but the exposure to the forestry career I had chosen at that time was eye opening and very educational.

If conservation programs aren’t your interest, there are innumerable other ways to get your foot in the door if you are willing to either volunteer or get paid very low wages. In other countries, taking a gap year between high school and college is the norm, and young people take the opportunity to work or volunteer in career areas that interest them. And although my experience working for the Student Conservation Association was limited to just a summer, the experience it gave me was invaluable.

If nothing else, dreaming about how to creatively spend long summer days in the depths of winter is a nice way to pass the time.

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