Susannah de la Houssaye is a senior at the Dominican Academy of New York. During her four years at the conservative all-girls Catholic school on East 68th Street, she has been a member of the Running Club, the French Club, the Art Club, the Library Club, Students Against Drunk Driving, the varsity track team and Amnesty International. She has also been junior class president, chief set designer and scenic artist for the school play and has worked on the yearbook.
Her résumé could almost be found under the graduation photo of Max Fischer, the fictional teenage overachiever from the movie Rushmore . But Max Fischer never spent his summer interning with a design director at Oscar de la Renta. Nor working for Betty Mae Casting, which filled the roles in Requiem for a Dream and I Know What You Did Last Summer . Nor with Jill Sprayregen Henkel, the set decorator for Beverly Hills 90210 and Titans . Ms. de la Houssaye did.
Gone are the days when working as a lifeguard or a baby-sitter was considered a legitimate, even productive way to spend a summer. Expensive community-service-oriented trips to exotic places like Western Samoa or Nicaragua–once so popular with Manhattan’s private-school set–are considered indulgences after high school freshman or sophomore year. Challenging academic programs at high-profile universities no longer cut it once a student reaches a certain age.
Instead, the typical Manhattan teenager is spending his or her summer the old-fashioned way: working. Not at McDonald’s or the neighborhood Duane Reade, or even at Mommy’s office. But maybe with Mommy’s friend, the record company executive. Or Daddy’s business associate, the home designer. And they’re starting as young as the ninth grade.
The result are résumés more typical of 22-year-old college grads than of 17-year-olds begging Amherst or Cornell or Princeton to take them in. Often, they’re two pages long and filled with enviable, grown-up jobs.
Slackers? That was yesterday’s generation. Today’s teenagers are products of the entrepreneurial 90’s, when even socialites had cubicles somewhere. They are motivated, they want money and they are willing to work. Whizzing by on their scooters, they have been lugging spine-bending backpacks around their schools. And in their summers, they’re using those backpacks as briefcases.
“At the turn of the millennium, there is a digital-age work ethic that frowns on idleness,” said Mark Oldman, one of the authors of The Internship Bible and co-founder of Vault.com. “Even in gilded families, there is a feeling that my son and daughter better be making productive use of their summer and attach themselves to a name brand.”
“There definitely is pressure,” said Isabel Duke, a freshman at the Spence School. “I have a friend who is absolutely in love with her summer camp. She’s been going there since she was 6. But whenever the subject comes up about her going back to camp, our other friends will be like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that with college coming up?'”
Not that this ninth-grader is a stranger to the kind of overachievement that may one day look impressive on a résumé. She is currently gathering submissions for an anthology of poetry she plans to edit about body image, written by young women.
Employers have adapted to accommodate students as young as 13. A 15-year-old sophomore at the Collegiate School said he plans to get a job at Bear Stearns this summer to “get a leg up” in the business and to make some money. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office will accept youths as young as 14 for their eight-week summer internship. Jean Wang, who hires interns for the design department of Betsey Johnson, remembers having an intern who was in eighth grade. “She was great,” said Ms. Wang. “She did everything the other interns did, except that because she was so young I didn’t like to send her out on errands. But we really liked her.”
Even the Metropolitan Museum, an institution that has been running high school internships for more than 20 years, has had to expand the number of applicants it accepts. Where once they took in 25 high-school-aged interns each summer, that number has now grown to 65.
“My sense is they start thinking about [getting an internship] between eighth and ninth grade,” said Lorenzo Krakowsky, the dean of student affairs at Fieldston as well as the informal coordinator of summer programs there. “A freshman came to my office today to ask about what she might do this summer.”
Kids will tell you that the pressure to be impressively employed in the summer comes only partially from their parents, and indirectly from trepidation about getting into college. Instead, the real push comes from their peers, born of the fear of being held up for comparison and falling short. “We have a lot of people trying to get into the same college,” said Jennifer Kallus, a senior at Stuyvesant High School. “And when you begin to look at other people’s résumés, you start to feel incompetent.”
Ms. Kallus, who is hoping to get an internship at the Museum of Modern Art this spring or the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer, has a résumé that boasts drawing classes at the Met, an Israel Scouts Summer Teen Program, attendance at the New York State Summer School for the Arts, a semester spent in Germany and several art and writing awards. Although her various accomplishments take up a full page and may put a Tisch graduate to shame, Ms. Kallus is not satisfied.
Marissa Petrou, a senior at Hunter, is more confident about her résumé. At 16, she started working in Washington, D.C., at ISD/Shaw each summer. “It’s a financial consulting company to government-sponsored companies,” she said easily, when asked what the company does. “Like, General Electric is one of their clients, and so is American Home Mortgages.”
On top of her internship at the consulting firm, Ms. Petrou spent two weeks of the summer of 1999 working on and around the Oregon Trail. Although she learned to build fences and helped raise barns, she is dismissive of the experience. “Oh, that was just a community-service thing,” she said.
But when she started talking about her current after-school internship–doing research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, working with diabetes and genetics and experimenting with gene therapy–she became more animated. “I love it, it’s great,” she said. “My sponsor happens to be from Germany, and I speak German, and she is teaching me so much stuff and it is really advanced. She was telling me that you don’t even start this kind of research until your fourth year of medical school.”
Ms. Petrou is also the president of the Federal Challenge Team, an economics competition sponsored by the Federal Reserve. “I basically just explain economic theory to the new members,” she said. Although it might seem that she could be going for her doctorate any day now, Ms. Petrou is not even hoping to go to the most competitive schools next fall; she lists U. Penn, Vassar, Northwestern and Johns Hopkins as among her top choices.
Ms. Petrou is still unsure about what she is going to do when she grows up, but many Manhattan youths start training for a future job by the time they are 15 or 16. And although Harvard University recently released a statement (called “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation”) saying that kids are too driven these days, a link off Fordham University’s Web site called “Tips on Preparing for College and a Career: A Primer for New York City High School Students and Their Parents” recommends that students should “continually” reflect on career goals throughout the ninth and tenth grades.
New York City youth are taking the sentiment to heart. A junior at the Trinity School who is interested in pursuing a career in theater tech spent last summer at an arts program at Wesleyan University lighting shows. This summer he is looking for an internship at a theater to build his experience. When asked what he did the summer after his freshman year, he responded sheepishly, “I stayed at home and slept. I know it doesn’t sound like much toward a career.”
A senior at Horace Mann School who plans to work in the hospitality field got a job last summer at the Coconut Grill, a restaurant on the Upper East Side. She calls the experience an internship in management, although she admits that “the official job title was ‘hostess.'”
Sophia Constantinides, a senior at Hunter College High School who would like to pursue a job “in the business end of the entertainment industry,” spent the summer of 2000 working with the design staff of the apparel group Phillips-Van Heusen, helping them out in the office after a recent acquisition of several new brands. The summer before that she spent at an N.Y.U. program for television broadcasting, where she made several short digital documentaries ranging in subject from ravers to how the cabaret laws were affecting bar owners.
Of course, college-crazed parents play a role in the internship frenzy. David Baluarte, the internship coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union, recalls getting phone calls from several mothers of high-schoolers eager to find worthwhile summer engagement for their teens. When asked if he ever hears from the moms, Mr. Krakowsky of Fieldston laughed. “All the time, I’m hearing from the parents wanting to find out about opportunities for their kids, and for their kids to get involved in things.”
Even parents who don’t want to seem pushy can’t hide an underlying pleasure that their teenager will be going to work. “I think it would be a good idea for [my daughter]– for anyone–to have some experience in any field they might be interested in,” said one father carefully. “We didn’t push her [to get an internship]; we like to let her make her own decisions. But when she said she was interested, we said it was a very good idea.”
And of course, in a city where connections can be everything, parents play a crucial role in setting up internships for their kids. Ms. de la Houssaye’s mother, for example, once had her own clothing line and owned a few restaurants, and used those connections to arrange her daughter’s high-profile work experiences: The designer at Oscar De La Renta was a customer at the restaurant she used to run, the sister of a friend runs the Betty Mae Casting Agency, and Jill Sprayregen Henkel, the set designer, is also Mrs. de la Houssaye’s friend.
Ms. Petrou’s mother is a doctor who met her daughter’s Mount Sinai sponsor at a medical conference. The junior at Trinity who wants to go into theater tech has an uncle in the field helping him find a theater to work in next summer. And even the Coconuts hostess had a family connection to the manager.
The Dalton School even culls internship opportunities from its prestigious moms and dads. Each year the school sends a mailing to parents called the Parent Resource Network Form, asking if they can offer an internship opportunity for Dalton students. “We’ve had great success on the part of our students getting to know different fields,” said Ellen Stein, who will become head of the school this July. “We’ve even seen students who wind up going into that field.”
Is it healthy? Or have we created a madly driven generation who will burn out by age 25? Is this satisfying to the teens–or just something they feel they have to do? It all depends: Some are happy, some are merely trying to touch every base. Some are overloaded (when asked if she ever slept, one Bronx Science student with a two-page résumé chock full of school clubs, dance classes and prestigious internships responded, “Rarely, but I do”), and some are energized. But they’re all encouraged to stay the course nonetheless.
“I’m of the opinion that any real-world work experience that a student can get along the way is all for the good,” said David Borus, the dean of admissions at Vassar. “Internships can be very valuable to the individual.”
Frank Leana, a private counselor who helps with admissions to private and boarding schools and colleges, agreed. “I think it is important to develop your interests,” he said. “A résumé that really works grows out of a student’s interests in high school. They don’t need a million, they just need a few that they have stuck with.”
But some see this as an ominous trend.
“Our society has become overly work-oriented,” said Steve Yarris, a child psychologist who has worked with Upper East Side and Greenwich Village teens for 10 years. “Our notion is that life is all about being successful in work, and the kids mimic what the adults do.
“Adolescence is a time of finding yourself, getting independence and establishing a social self,” he continued. “[And all that] can be precluded by jumping into work.”
Just being a teen–shutting down, relaxing, enjoying youth–is not an option anymore. Demetra Mileos, an easygoing junior at Riverdale, has always spent her summers with her family at a home in Greece. “I usually like to rest and relax over the summer,” she said.
But as much as Ms. Mileos dreams of another summer in a small Greek town, “I have a meeting with the college adviser next week,” she said. “I’m going to ask if I should do a college program or something. Basically, everyone I know from school is doing it.”
–with Amy Berkowitz