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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The apprentices The apprentices (May 18, 2005)

High school students applying for internships in greater numbers

by Alexandria Rocha

Kaija Ollikainen spends her Sundays cleaning animal cages, nurturing sick squirrels and feeding bobcats. Tiffany Hawes visits Lytton Gardens Thursday evenings walks with a few of the residents. On school days, Brian Alexander transforms into a bank teller complete with fancy shirt and tie.

These three local high school students are proof that internships are no longer for college undergrads.

Through the Palo Alto Unified School District's Exploratory Experience program, teenage students here have a plethora of opportunities to turn their interests into internships, all the while earning high school credit and gaining a stellar tidbit for college applications and essays.

While many of them are like Kaija and Tiffany -- who are fulfilling childhood goals of helping animals and befriending the elderly, respectively -- others are like Brian who pick up internships on a whim, hoping to learn a few new skills along the way.

There are no hard statistics on the recent popularity of internships at the high school level, but those who have been around the district a number of years have noticed an increase. Most school officials see the internships as positive, however, they say some are trying to pad college applications and essays.

"As it's become more difficult to get into college, students have added everything from internships to community service to more club activities," said Cathy Kroymann, a member of the district's Board of Education. "I think college students have done internships for a long time and it's probably just moving down."

It's also likely that teenage internships are more common in cities like Palo Alto with high-achieving high schools, said Kroymann. Parents here may encourage their teens a bit more to get an early start on their interests that could turn into future careers.

The district's Exploratory Experience program lends itself well to that kind of fostering. Meri Gyves, the director of Gunn and Paly's joint work experience program, said students can approach her with any idea and she can likely turn it into an internship.

"Some say I want to work with animals and I go out and find them something," she said. "Year after year now, with more people going through the program, we're getting the contacts."

There are dozens of students using the district's work program to squeak into the Peninsula's labor force.

Other organizations and businesses willing to take high school students on include Sen. Joe Simitian's office, the Stanford Pet Clinic, Lockheed Martin, Hidden Villa and the Stanford Children's Health Council.

For Kaija, working at both the Wildlife Rescue Center and the local zoo earns credits for school and fills a longtime dream. After all, she has always loved animals and has had many, including four cats, one dog, three rabbits, one gecko and one fish -- not to mention the numerous rats, mice and hamsters.

"From both places, I've learned about confidence -- you have to have a lot to grab a bird out of its cage," she said.

At the Wildlife Rescue Center, where she has volunteered for about one year, Kaija spends her four and a half-hour shifts cleaning cages and feeding the animals, some which have to be fed by tube and syringe. Since most birds have to be fed every 45 minutes, Kaija said there is no time to slack off.

Tiffany, a 16-year-old Paly junior, said her passion to help the elderly comes from having a young family. Unlike many children today, she knew her great grandparents well.

She has been volunteering at Lytton Gardens for about three years, but only started earning credit for her efforts this year. She currently has about five to six residents who she visits regularly, mostly listening to their stories and taking walks. She admits that she's a bit attached. "I didn't think I would become friends with the people. I just thought I would listen to their problems," she said. "A few years ago I became so close to a 94-year-old man, he was like my grandpa." When she's not at Lytton Gardens, Tiffany volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, playing with the young patients and their siblings. Sometimes she'll take them across the street to the Stanford Shopping Center.

"I've always wanted to help people. They have every right to do all the same things we do in our every day lives. It makes me realize how much we take for granted," said Tiffany, referring to those she assists and befriends at both establishments.

Both Kaija and Tiffany said they will definitely pursue career paths in keeping with their internships. Brian, however, isn't so sure he'll go into banking.

"I like that it's a great back up, it's a lane I can take," he said. "But I'd like to go to college and see where that takes me."

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