Laguna Blanca's Melissa Schmitt hangs out with zebras in South Africa.

Not many high school seniors can take three weeks off from school to try a hand at their dream jobs. But, Laguna Blanca School‘s senior projects program allows students to do just that.

Started more than 30 years ago, the program was created to help the seniors gain valuable experience outside the classroom. Students can either choose a profession or community organization in which they hope to intern, or can construct their own academic independent study.

“Students gain insights about a potential career and about the world around them. Seniors’ eyes are opened to a world in which they can possibly see themselves later in life,” said Trish McHale, the faculty director of the senior projects program. The program opens up unlimited possibilities for students to explore their own specialized interests before heading off college, with some venturing across the country, and even the world, to do so.

One intrepid senior, Melissa Schmitt, traveled all the way to South Africa to explore her passion of game capture. Schmitt, 18, already had a specific job in mind, as she explained: “I know I want to pursue a career in wildlife management and conservation biology so I have been finding ways to get involved with working with wildlife.”

Using an online volunteer placement program called African Conservation Experience (ACE), Schmitt found an internship with Wildlife Translocation Services. During her three weeks in South Africa, Schmitt helped with various captures and relocations of animals, and also got to work closely with the wildlife veterinarians.

Capturing wild animals in South Africa was the senior project of Laguna Blanca's Melissa Schmitt.

“The time I spent working for WTS reaffirmed my passion for wildlife and conservation work,” explained Schmitt, who is heading to UC-Santa Cruz in the fall. “I plan to go back in the future and work for WTS again. Laguna gave me an excuse to do something I absolutely adore and gave me the chance to follow my passion.”

But Laguna’s program is not all play and no work. The student must periodically check in with an advisor, who can act as a community liaison and offer assistance should difficulties arise – a huge benefit that ordinary summer internships don’t often have. When the seniors return, they must write a speech to be given during a final presentation, and then a faculty committee grades each project. The winner of the Outstanding Senior Project Award is announced at commencement.

Laguna's Kenya Rodriguez teaches a group of young girls about why they should pursue higher education.

Kenya Rodriguez, who was this year’s winner, took an active role in constructing her own project. “I didn’t want to be mentored or have an internship in an office,” she said. “I wanted to take my senior project in my own hands.” Instead, she chose to focus her efforts in giving back to the community closer to home. Rodriguez’s previous volunteering experience at Girls Inc. immediately led her back to the organization. In three weeks, she planned, set up, marketed, and taught a college prep course for high school students, mostly from the Latino community.

“I am a first generation high school graduate,” said Rodriguez, who will also be the first in her family to attend college, specifically the University of Redlands. “Going to college has always been a big goal of mine, and it only made sense to apply what I had learned my senior year and teach it my peers.”

For Rodriguez, 18, the most important aspect of the course was to make the information more relatable. “It is one thing to be taught the college application process by a counselor,” she said, “but it is a lot more motivating to hear it from your peers.”

During the one-day workshop, Rodriguez covered everything from filling out application forms and doing interviews to the details of standardized testing, FAFSA, scholarships, and financial aid. Remembering her own financial concerns about college, Rodriguez thought it especially important to cover financial aid. As she explained, “I let them know that to not hold back on an opportunity of higher education just because of lack of financial resources.”

Ultimately, the projects act as a link for the students to the real world. Upon completion of the projects, many of the students are then offered internships for the summer. With the current state of the job market, that sounds like a pretty good deal.


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