As Avenues’ director of Mastery, Mark Gutkowski shepherds Upper Division students on deep-dive explorations of diverse interests and passions – anything a curious teenage mind can propose and commit to over time. “One of the core things we do in the Mastery Program is to give kids ownership over their learning, to discover and define their vision of their future,” he says. “In that context, internships can be a crystallizing experience – amassing all the things they’re learning and doing in school, and then just jumping off, taking that leap into the real world, into a whole different sphere of expertise and endeavor.” That intriguing thought prompted an enjoyable discussion.
What does a good internship experience bring to students in terms of skills that they’ll find valuable for the rest of their lives?
That interaction with adult mentors, people who are working in a particular field or discipline – it immediately takes a student, who’s likely been reading deeply about something or practicing strictly within an academic environment, and places them into a living, breathing ecosystem – where adults are actually creating things and making a livelihood at it. And that’s an awakening. It just shifts the whole impression, in a kid’s mind, of what’s possible.
Can you give us an impression of the range of things your students have been pursuing?
One of my favorite examples: over several years at Avenues, a young woman moved from investigating a broad passion for social justice, on to working within a group at the United Nations, and then to working for a specific congressperson. We’ve seen her through a great journey – from a broad interest, to far more focused work at a global organization, to a pinpoint focus in working for one lawmaker. Over the long course of a student’s development, that’s the best of what Mastery does. It starts with broad strokes, and then hones things down, going deeper and deeper.
Or you can concentrate a volume of experience in a shorter time. We had a student equestrienne who devoted the entirety of Fifth Term – a whole month – to interning with a horse veterinarian upstate. And she was getting up at 4:30 in the morning, following the vet on rounds, and eventually getting involved in some nitty-gritty surgical work. That’s the kind of in-depth experience you can offer when you have a full month like Fifth Term. You can go way outside the box in considering immersive experiences for mastery pursuit. Enabling more experiences like those is going to be the next step for us as a school and a community.
Some of our students have even chosen what seems like a traditional route, and interned at the family business. This has allowed parents and relatives to share their expertise in a totally different context – far removed from, say, a typical dinner conversation about work. It enabled kids to encounter and imagine, in an authentic way, what it might be like to be part of this business in an envisioned future.
What happens when a student goes into an internship with the best intentions, but their imagination doesn't match reality?
Those experiences can be even more worthwhile. For example, we had a student who became very interested in advertising, and imagined a career on the business side of that profession. But once he spent Fifth Term at an ad agency and experienced the day-to-day of the business side, he realized he was much better cut out for the creative side of it – the brainstorming and idea generating.
Learning something like that, early on, is important. To understand that something isn’t suited for you isn't a failure – it’s a strong push in the right direction. Students get to answer a key question: Does this real-world experience match up with my vision of myself? Is my mastery effort in the right zone? If not, they need to pivot. An internship might serve to move a kid from one sphere to a completely different one. And that type of shift is valuable because it helps the student get closer to understanding his or her authentic self. Ultimately, that's the type of personal development we are hoping to encourage in our students through Mastery.
This article was originally published on Avenues New York OPEN on January 24, 2018.