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Choosing a Path When You Know Exactly What You Want—and When You Have No Idea

As a college student, how do you figure out what you want to do with your life? How do you learn firsthand about a career field? How do you develop confidence, experience and professional skills?

One place to start, according to Smith students and alumnae, is the college's unique Praxis internship program. The experience, they say, can be instrumental in providing trail markers along the way, affirming or debunking whether one is headed in the right direction.

"This internship clarified my path," said Juliane Casey '11 in August, midway through her summer internship in New York City with clinical psychologist and radio host Dr. Judy Kuriansky '68. Casey, a junior studying psychology and economics, worked alongside two other Smith students: Ryan Rasdall '11 and Alexandra Frizzell '12.

"One of the things I really like about this amazing experience is that it took me behind the scenes of the television cameras at CNN and the microphones at the radio talk shows, for instance, and demystified that. It was a reality check in a positive way....And now when I get back to Smith this fall I also want to look into doing more in the media-related field."

Looking back, many Smith graduates are happy to point to the internship experiences that were significant as they explored interests and moved toward careers.

"My Praxis internship [at Exit Art in New York] gave me valuable insight in running an art gallery—the logistics, the research that goes into shows and the importance of places like Exit Art in the history of art," says Kika Gilbert '08, a studio art major now working for 20x200, a Web site selling limited-edition photographs and prints. (Visit www.20x200.com for more.)

Studio art major Kika Gilbert ’08 gained valuable insight in running an art gallery during her Praxis internship. Photo by Edward Judice.

Administered by Smith's Career Development Office, the Praxis program gives each Smith sophomore or junior access to a one-time $2,000 stipend that provides practical help and ensures she can afford to participate in a summer internship that draws on her academic background and builds on her career goals.

If it weren't for the Praxis summer internship she held in 2001 with the Scottish Human Rights Centre, Gillian Econopouly '02 probably wouldn't be where she is today.

In Glasgow, Scotland, she did primary research on the availability of legal advice for asylum seekers. A government major, Econopouly also contributed to Scotland's reports to the UN on the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. "This not only got me interested in immigration, which later became the topic for my master’s dissertation, but also offered rare insight into the lives of asylum seekers, which most people living in Scotland would never see."

Now, eight years after her internship, Econopouly has completed a master's degree in European politics and governance at the London School of Economics and continues to work in the policy field as a public affairs manager at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

She credits much of her achievement to being able to connect the practical learning that Praxis offered her in Scotland to the course work she accomplished in Smith classrooms. "It was the internship—and the Praxis funding—that gave me the initial experience I needed to start a career in the UK and in my chosen field," she says.

Juniors Ryan Rasdall (left) and Juliane Casey spent the summer in New York City interning for Dr. Judy Kuriansky ’68, clinical psychologist and radio host. Their Praxis internship took them all over Manhattan and beyond, from the newsrooms of CNN and Court TV to a classroom in Columbia University Teacher's College and a meeting of psychologists in Toronto. Photo courtesy of Juliane Casey '11.

By contrast, some, like Amy [Kowalski] Church '02, had second thoughts after their Praxis internships demonstrated that the career they were considering was not a good fit.

Initially, Church thought she was headed for medical school and a career as an emergency room physician, so at Smith she immersed herself in a heavy course load of science classes.

But she says she had an epiphany after her Praxis internship in the emergency room of a hospital near Boston led her to realize that medicine, for her, was the wrong career choice.

By the time she graduated, with an economics major and a minor in exercise and sport studies, she wanted to work with athletes and pursue a master's in kinesiology with a concentration in sport psychology. The latter she accomplished at California State in Fullerton. Then it was on to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for a doctorate in sport sociology; she is finishing her dissertation and expects to graduate in May 2010.

Meanwhile, Church is working with athletes in the health and fitness industry, first as a personal trainer and then as the personal training manager for Equinox in Boston, a national health and fitness club. She oversees a $2.2 million department and some 30 trainers. "And I love it!" she notes.

"The lesson I've learned is this: follow your heart," she says. "Knowing what you don't want to do is just as valuable as knowing what you are passionate about." —JME

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