Senior projects heal world
By JENNIFER DIRECTOR KNUDSEN
article created on: 2009-06-11T00:00:00
High school senior Fiona Hoffman-Harland did not spend the latter half of May studying for finals or preparing for her first year at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. Nor was she hanging out late with buddies or fretting over keeping her room neat.
Rather, Hoffman-Harland, a 17-year-old Catlin Gabel School student on the cusp of graduation, was ensuring newly arrived refugees from all over the world were getting basic needs met. Food stamps. Emergency medical care. Housing. Employment.
Hoffman-Harland spent three weeks in May as an unpaid intern for the International Rescue Committee in New York, whose motto is “From Harm to Home.”
“I feel like this is the first time in my life that I have actually been entrusted to do important work,” she wrote in a newsy and insightful May 13 blog, one of four entries a week she was required to file throughout her IRC experience to her Catlin advisor, Mark Lawton, a high school math teacher and director of community service.
Catlin Gabel this year required all its seniors to complete a Senior Project before they could graduate; the vast majority of the three- to four-week unpaid internships took place in Portland, said Joan Piper, also a high school math teacher and head of the Senior Project committee. The class of 2009 had 77 seniors, at least seven of whom are Jewish.
Each senior prepared a proposal of how his or her desired internship fit project guidelines, and it had to be approved by Piper’s committee.
According to school literature: “[S]enior projects should offer to students the opportunity for experiential education in an area of their interest, connecting school experiences to further scholarly work or to work experiences that fall outside of the Catlin Gabel curriculum.”
Piper said Hoffman-Harland’s proposal—the first project bid to work for the IRC —reflected the senior’s personality and drive.
“This is a true interest of hers,” Piper said. “It’s something that I can see her pursuing beyond the senior project. She’s a focused, motivated and caring individual.”
Hoffman-Harland, a Congregation Beth Israel member, described excruciatingly long waits with refugees from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal and elsewhere, as she helped explain, in rudimentary English, documents outlining Food Stamps Program policies, medical benefits, Social Security information and rental agreements.
She also acted as intermediary between her often confused and frustrated charges and government office personnel as well as healthcare providers.
Hoffman-Harland recounted that on May 19—the seventh day of her internship—she spent seven hours in a hospital’s emergency waiting room with a Nepalese mother and her son.
Ill, the mother required an exam. While she couldn’t understand the doctors’ words she also was hemmed in by a tradition of modesty; she refused to allow Hoffman-Harland into the exam room despite the senior’s yen to help.
The experience “was a contrast between what I thought I was supposed to do and what they’d let me do,” Hoffman-Harland said in a phone interview from New York before her May 29 return to Portland.
Eventually, the mother’s son fetched Hoffman-Harland from the waiting room.
That day’s blog says: “He was happy to see me and I was somehow able to convey the message to him that his mother was fine. … At the end of the day…despite the discomfort (of the mother and son)…(the mother) gave me a hug and thanked me for helping her, which made all of the waiting worth it.”
Fellow Jewish classmate Rachel June-Graber had an entirely different experience.
June-Graber, 18, off to Carlton College in Northfield, Minn., did her Senior Project at Beth Israel, her family’s synagogue.
“Rachel is a very bright, mature self-starter with great common sense,” said Sydney A. Baer, Beth Israel’s executive director.
Baer oversaw much of June-Graber’s work, which included helping with the synagogue’s annual meeting, its mid-May 150th anniversary gala and handling office duties, such as proofreading documents, writing newsletter articles and answering the phone.
June-Graber said observing the “behind-the-scenes” running of a big non-profit proved most interesting.
Maiya Zwerling of Havurah Shalom interned with former Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore. Zwerling, 17, helped raise money for one of Hooley’s new ventures, a scholarship fund to benefit Oregon National Guard veterans.
“In my internship I have learned the ins and outs of fundraising and the responsibility necessary to work alongside a politician in a cause such as this,” said Zwerling, soon off to Pennsylvania, where she’ll attend Bryn Mawr College.
She also learned what she likes in a job—“connecting with and helping others”—and what she doesn’t—“a lot of paperwork, sitting and staring at the computer, only making phone calls,” she said.
Blake Morell, also of Beth Israel and who will attend Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., is involved in Jewish non-profits, including the Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation, and so sought an internship in the for-profit world.
He learned about sustainable, small businesses through the Apolloni Vineyards, a family-run operation in the Willamette Valley. Morell, 17, worked on the winery’s Web site and established its blog, all of which, he said, “gave me a taste of the business world, which is what I’m interested in.”
Additional internships Catlin’s Jewish seniors took on included Andy Goodman’s work as an assistant maintenance technician in Ron Tonkin Acura’s service center; Maddie McMonies’ stint with the White Bird Dance Company; and Sabrina Stanley-Katz’s assistance at the Centro Cultural.
Clearly, Catlin’s seniors gained the experiential education the Senior Project has as goal-one for its graduating young adults.
Said Hoffman-Harland of the refugees she met through her internship with the International Rescue Committee: “They’ve almost helped me out more than I’ve helped them out.”
This story funded by a Judith and Edwin Cohen Foundation grant.