Give a college kid a good summer internship job and he/she will learn at least as much as in a year of class. And it gives them an edge in finding future employment.
It's a time-proven truth that works even in today's uncertain job market. It works even with shorter term job experiences called externships.
That's why the externship program of Penn State's Department of Dairy and Animal Science has been increasingly popular. It allows students to use their winter and spring breaks for week-long work experiences with agricultural enterprises – and earn college credits.
This year, the program paired 31 students – the largest class in the history – with 10 sponsors during the winter and spring breaks. "Students and sponsors like the limited time frame versus a longer summer commitment," explains Harold Harpster, professor of animal science and coordinator of the program. The shortened experience allows students to sample several career options throughout their time at Penn State.
"Some sponsors work with up to four students over each break and have participated in the externship program for several years," Harpster says.
What they learned
Melissa Boess, a senior from Warrington, Pa., externed with Select SirePower in January 2010 and Cargill Meat Solutions of Wyalusing in January 2011. She experienced "the other side of the beef industry" – all the way to meat packaging.
In his four-day externship with Genex in January, junior Jared Risser's experiences ranged from riding with local service technicians and working with dairy geneticists to touring the bull-collecting and semen-handling operations at the company's Ithaca, N.Y. facility. His family's farm at Bainbridge, Pa., uses Genex services, so the Animal Sciences major was drawn to learn more.
An externship with Nittany Greyhounds, a canine-rescue organization, convinced junior Lindsey Hallstrom, from DuBois, Pa., that a career caring for animals was right for her. "Externships are a way to learn about an industry, be immersed in it and start thinking about life after graduation."
Sophomores Justene Testa, from Latrobe, Pa., and Melissa Wise from Bloomington, Ill., interned with Next Level Horsemanship in Port Matilda, Pa., learning about training horses and evaluating their body language and interaction with humans.
"Even the daunting tasks of mucking out all of the stalls each morning had a double meaning," says Testa. "Clean stalls reduce health risks, but also maintain an image (important to marketing a business). The owner, Dr. Suzanne Myers, repeated the idea that 'the first impression is the one that lasts,' an important truth that carries over to any business."
And there's junior Nicole Anderson of Milford, Pa., who received a "grand welcome" every morning from the animals housed at Centre Wildlife Care in one of her extern experiences. This summer, she's studying in France under another Penn State program and is working primarily with dairy cattle and swine on various farms.
Anderson has good advice for students: "Get out of your comfort zone. Try new things. Experience is the key to learning." Older folks would do well to do the same.