During Kelly Tausk’s practicum at the Evanston Health Department, she helped director Evonda Thomas coordinate a women’s run event. The practicum “was an influence that inspired me to continue my involvement in community-based public health efforts,” she says.
Junior Marisa Bast says, “My experience at the Holocaust Museum taught me so many valuable lessons. I learned the importance of taking risks, establishing relationships with the people you work with and taking initiative on large projects.”
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Putting Education into Action with the SESP Practicum
What gives an education staying power? Which educational experiences have long-lasting impact, and why? As we explore the power of education, we look to alumni to report on what made the biggest difference in their lives.
Lawyers, psychologists, educators, consultants, researchers. The career paths of School of Education and Social Policy alumni are as varied as their names.
However, when alumni from different walks of life spoke on campus recently about what influenced their careers, there was a common theme: the SESP practicum.
Years after college, this 10-week real-world internship, along with its complementary academic seminar, seems to resonate with alumni. In fact, many point to the practicum as the peak learning experience of their Northwestern University education. They say the practicum improved their career choices, professional skills and analytical focus.
In fact, the real-world learning of the SESP practicum has special relevance today because of a key priority in Northwestern University’s new Strategic Plan. “We will, more than ever before, integrate student learning with experiences in the world beyond the classroom,” states the plan. For nearly four decades, the SESP practicum has been doing just that.
The practicum has kickstarted the careers of countless alumni. For example, Lanetta Haynes Turner (BS00) says her practicum at the Public Guardian’s Office was such a good experience that she built a career working on behalf of children. She is now executive director of Cook County Justice for Children. Jennifer Leyton-Armakan (BS07), whose practicum was in the partial hospitalization unit at Children’s Memorial Hospital, is now a psychologist focusing on children and adolescents. Many alumni value the practicum as a bridge between academics and professional work. “The practicum gives students a real-world perspective in an area of interest that they think they might want to go into,” comments Turner. Students tailor their practicums to their interests, reaching out to businesses or nonprofits they select themselves. They draw on databases of potential employers and student site evaluations to help them take control of the search process.
The practicum clarifies not only what students are interested in but also what they aren’t interested in. For example, for Austin Pate (BS11) a practicum in Washington, D.C., confirmed that education policy was the field he wanted, and now he works at American Youth Policy Forum, researching how to support youth at risk of dropping out. In contrast, Maddie Orenstein (BS10) discovered by interning at a central school district office that she wanted to work directly with students instead. “I learned that I like working inside school buildings,” says Orenstein, who went on to a job as a college and career coach.
The real-world practicum applies and extends learning from the classroom. For example, Pate says, “I had heard in several of my classes the difficulty in implementing policy through multiple levels of government, but seeing those ‘theoretical’ challenges play out firsthand really made me understand.” Similarly, for learning and organizational change major David Harris a practicum at a technology start-up increased his understanding of marketing, financial operations and building growth.
Professional Skill Building
At its most basic level, the practicum offers a “foot in the door professionally,” notes Kenneth Hutchinson (BS04), director of college counseling at Urban Prep Academies. Work experience, recommendations and a professional network are pluses in the job market, and students often find that the internship gives them qualifications for landing jobs with prestigious organizations.
With the assistance of SESP advisers and Northwestern career services, students prepare for the practicum with mock interviews, resume writing and job search workshops. Then the practicum itself continues to build professional skills, experience and confidence. That’s what happened for junior Daniel Koo, who found his practicum at Nielsen helpful in many ways — from shifting his biological clock to understanding how to plan projects, network effectively and work in global teams.
The practicum can teach both hard skills and also less tangible lessons about professionalism and teamwork. Jill Grewe (BS12), who works as a human capital analyst at Deloitte, says her practicum and especially her supervisor taught her skills including e-mail etiquette, how to interact with senior managers and how to lead a team. In a number of ways, the practicum sets students on the road to career success.
At its heart, what sets the practicum apart and drives its lifelong impact is the academic component, according to numerous alumni including Marc Staros (BS09), Claire Lew (BS11) and Zoya Kolkin (BS10). Practicum students participate in a weekly seminar with a faculty member, which requires them to examine their workplace experience, compile observational field notes and write a research paper. Prior to the practicum term, each student completes a course in Methods of Observing Human Behavior.
Staros, who is global client program and quality leader at Nielsen, has supervised several practicum students. He observes, “The focus, feedback and coaching provided in the weekly classroom debrief make the program distinct. It encourages students to consider more than their daily deliverables and instead also consider the organizational dynamics that influence everything from their manager’s word choice to their team structure.”
Years later, he sees his own practicum influencing his business decisions every day because it established the habit of viewing behaviors and organizations through an analytical lens. Lew agrees, “It taught me that there’s a process that includes reflection. … It accelerates your learning.”
Kolkin, who is still working at the nonprofit where she did her practicum, also points out the noncognitive benefits of the academic component. “As I discovered the meaning of working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., work/life balance and the inevitable politics of the workplace, I felt supported by my network of peers in the practicum program and the insights of our professor,” she says.
Practicum in Perspective
Beyond the academic lens, what else gives the practicum the power to improve career choices and establish lifelong skills? Advisers and alumni say it’s the practicum’s real-world perspective, interest-driven format and mentoring opportunities that motivate students and put them in charge.
The mentoring aspect of the practicum offers considerable potential for impact, according to dean of student affairs Susan Olson. For many students, the supervisor can make or break the practicum.
Like numerous other alumni, David Fine (BS07) is giving back to today’s undergraduates for the clear direction his practicum provided. “Since I graduated in 2007, I have supervised several practicum students at my places of work,” says Fine, who is now dean of student support at a Chicago charter school. “Allowing undergrads to take on the full responsibility of specific assignments, like I was given in my practicum, has provided great experiences for the students and returned great results for my organizations.”
The SESP practicum requirement started in 1975, in an effort to teach students “you can learn to work in the world, and you can learn how the world works,” as professor Dan Lewis puts it. Lewis helped to strengthen the practicum as a unique feature of undergraduate education at SESP. Today it remains a centerpiece of the distinctive SESP approach that combines inquiry, research and applied learning.