As a rising senior at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, Esther Sokoloff-Rubin is paving herself a path toward a career where she can help people.
Even when laying down wooden tracks for toy trains at Whole Children, a non-profit education center off Route 9 in Hadley, she is gaining the skills needed for a profession in a field such as pediatrics or psychology. She enjoys seeing the smiling faces of kids having fun and participating in activities she organizes.
A decision many high school students and recent graduates face when planning their summer break is whether or not to take an unpaid position that can provide a valuable experience toward their desired vocation. And choosing between a paid job unrelated to their field of study or an unpaid position with an organization that could further their career in the long run is not easy.
Organizations such as Whole Children and Northampton Center for the Arts, as well as political groups and campaigns, provide volunteer and internship opportunities for young adults that allow them to pursue their individual interests, but often at the expense of a steady income during the summer months.
This past week, Sokoloff-Rubin began her two-week stint as a volunteer. She encouraged kids to work through silent discomfort during introductory ice breaker activities on the first day.
“Even just from the get-go, there were lots of kids that would be kind of silent, like ‘what did you do this summer?’ and they would have nothing to say,” Sokoloff-Rubin said on the second day of the program. “And then just me turning around asking, ‘Did you go swimming? Did you do this? Did you do that?’ and then they’d get going. And by the smiles on their faces it was really clear that after sitting in silence and then asking a few more questions totally got the kids going.”
She said helping kids realize what they are capable of is “immensely gratifying” and is something she enjoys. For other children who are more apt to give more elaborate answers, she said she had to get them to refine their answers to just a couple bullet points.
“I think I’ve built an ability to read situations quickly with kids and that feels like something that is really important to be able to do here,” Sokoloff-Rubin said. “To be able to quickly know what the right thing to do is in the moment.”
Although she said she is not exactly sure what she wants to study in college, Sokoloff-Rubin is gaining skills by volunteering at Whole Children as she narrows down her focus. She supplements her volunteer work with lifeguarding at an overnight camp, coaching at Hampshire Gymnastics School, and baby-sitting for various families in the area.
“It’s really fun to explore what I am good at, what I really like, what brings me joy, and the things I have an interest in,” Sokoloff-Rubin said, adding that a career that allows her to help people is “really high up there.”
Amanda Kent, a teacher and the volunteer coordinator at Whole Children, said volunteers help out a lot by giving students one-on-one attention as needed throughout the day.
“A lot of skills [volunteers] learn are through complicated communication with people, some who have a level of complexity when communicating,” Kent said. “Esther came in with a lot of skills and it helped her have a stronger role in class, like greeting parents in the lobby, helping with attendants, helping prep the room, and aiding certain kids who need it.”
Kent said as situations arise during the day with children, they get to learn a lot about volunteers by how they handle those difficult situations.
“It builds character and it gives insight into people’s character,” she said. “Most come here to get experience and some come to build their resume, but building your resume is building experience.”
Work that resonates
At her internship that began in May, Smith College rising senior Hanna Bredvik said her role at the Northampton Center for the Arts has given her a lot of “freedom and opportunity” to explore teaching writing in ways she did not have before.
“The internship has been helpful,” said Bredvik, who is double majoring in dance and creative writing. “I had not thought about teaching creative writing to young kids and it’s exciting to think you can tap into it at an early age.”
At the arts center she is working with 6- to 12-year-old kids, and she said it was exciting to see an 8-year-old writing and illustrating a graphic novel.
“If I had the opportunity to write a graphic novel at the age of eight, I would feel a strong sense of accomplishment,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to say you did.”
The internship is unpaid but she receives a stipend from Smith’s Praxis Summer Internship Funding, which roughly 400 undergraduate students receive to help them gain experience beyond the classroom.
Bredvik said she still works 12-hour days when she is not at the arts center for different child-care jobs in the area to supplement the stipend. She said she did not want to pursue a job that did not interest her and wanted to find work that would “resonate” with her.
“People are talking more about getting experience and tapping into opportunities once they are in college,” Bredvik said. “I think that once you are in college and you start thinking about what to do afterward, you start to put pressure on yourself to look around and find something.”
Investing in the future
An aspiring political campaign field director, Matt Walsh, is a rising senior at Amherst College and a volunteer for Chelsea Kline’s campaign for state Senate. He said he chose to work for Kline’s campaign because “she had a convincing message and the experience to back up what she said.”
Walsh heard Kline speak at his former high school’s commencement ceremony this year, and he was moved by her personal story about why public government programs are important because she herself relied on them.
“She lived it rather than theorizing about it,” said Walsh, who is studying political science and French.
As part of the campaign, he’s been knocking on doors, making connections with constituents, and has contributed to Kline’s policy platform.
“Nowadays, especially in liberal arts schools, you are constantly asked what practical experience you have, and I want to have the most possible when joining the job market,” Walsh said.
There is an expectation among employers now that once a student graduates college and they are ready to join the job market, they will have one or two internships under their belt, according to Victoria Wilson, assistant director of internship programs at Amherst College.
“Speaking with employers there is a feeling that a student can be smart, have a great GPA and taken challenging courses, but the hands-on experience and gaining real-world experience is just as valuable as students who are outstanding in academics,” she said.
Learning hard technical skills along with soft professional skills in a low-risk seasonal environment can be a testing period for both employers and students, Wilson said. Without a professor, peer, or parent to guide students through their internships, they often have to rely on their skills and hone in on trusting themselves.
Not only can they take what they learned on campus and apply it to a real life setting, but they can reassess personal and professional goals once they do get back to campus, she said.
“A really good internship is when students are pushed outside their comfort zone,” Wilson said. “Often they are thrown into a situation where they have to test their preconceived notions of a profession… there is value in an internship in terms of career success, not discounting their personal growth.”
Walsh said he sees his volunteer work as an investment in his future. Once his time with the campaign is over, he said he will come out of it with “great people I know in government and come out of this with skills I wouldn’t have otherwise, a pay off big time down the line with job qualifications.”
Luis Fieldman can be reached at