Do What You Love During Winter Term

February 10, 2014

Amanda Nagy

Bicycles on a bike rack, surrounded by snow.
Bikes parked on campus during the winter months.
Photo credit: Oberlin College

The month of January at Oberlin is unlike that at the majority of colleges and universities. Instead of returning headlong to the pressures of the spring semester course schedule, Oberlin has devised winter term, a session that allows students to devote all of their energy to a single project in a setting of their choosing. During this time, students complete individual or group projects, explore a potential career through internships or applied research, or pursue a new hobby or physical skill, either on or off campus.

For a faculty member, winter term is an ideal time to conduct research with student collaborators, both on-campus and away on special field trips.

Winter term is many things: From delegations volunteering in Guatemala and Belgium, spiritual retreats, or learning a new language or musical instrument, many students find January to be their favorite time of year (even in the cold Midwest). While Oberlin requires only three winter-term projects for graduation, it’s not uncommon for students to pursue a worthwhile adventure during each of their four years.

With all the challenges and scrutiny to the value of a liberal arts education in today’s economy, Oberlin’s winter term enables students to test themselves and their place in the world, says Richard Berman, director of Oberlin’s Career Center.

“All traditional age undergraduates lack two vital components that will inform their futures. The first is information about the wide range of options for engaging work, service, and means of purpose and fulfillment; the second is the knowledge and understanding they need in order to effectively convey their promise and resolve to organizations and communities of which they seek to impact,” Berman says. “To this end, winter term is an invitation to explore—the world, a professional path, and self-awareness.”

Berman says that while a number of peer institutions have a January or May term, Oberlin was among the first undergraduate institutions to offer immersion programs, such as the highly competitive Oberlin Business Scholars, a program in January that connects students with alumni working in business and finance in three major urban centers.

Many students use the time to search outside their major, or find connections between their field of study and a personal passion.

“I have one advisee majoring in economics who enjoys cartography in his spare time,” says Jenny Hawkins, visiting assistant professor of economics. “He chose to spend winter term devoting more time to his maps, which tell a story of some historical event. I’ve seen them, and they’re fascinating.”

Hawkins helped find an internship for another advisee, second-year student Colin Brown. The two of them worked together to find an opportunity combining his interests in economics and environmental studies.

“Around fall break, he told me he wanted to find an internship in Washington, D.C., with an environmental research firm. I did my best to make a list of possibilities for him, then I told him to send his résumé with a cover letter to each,” Hawkins says. “I called each firm to give them a heads-up in hopes they wouldn’t dismiss his request. Many found it odd that a student wanted to work one month for free. Unfortunately, we had weeks and weeks with no hits.

“Over Thanksgiving, he called each to remind them to follow-up on his offer. We were both discouraged, as we spent a lot of time trying to find a place for him. Finally, this great research organization, the World Resources Institute, came through. The great thing about this winter term internship is that he created the opportunity from the ground up, didn’t give up, and had the chance to work on projects that are challenging and enlightening.”

Brown says his work with the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global nonprofit organization, was divided between working for the organization’s Corporate Consulting Group and Water Initiative Team.

“My work with the Corporate Consulting Group was to prepare for and assist during their annual MindShare Conference, which brings together WRI's corporate partners to discuss sustainability initiatives and how WRI can assist these corporations in achieving their benchmarks,” says Brown, an economics and environmental studies double major. “A lot of my tasks involved research on the firms attending, as well as note-taking during the conference.

“My work with the water team involved conducting research on the water supply systems of major Brazilian metropolitan regions. That research will be used in WRI's upcoming Global Forests for Water Project. It was an incredibly beneficial experience academically, and the people at WRI were very welcoming.”

Hawkins says that hard work will pay off in other ways, because it can open doors for future opportunities. “I believe this is the essence of winter term internships: Take knowledge from the classroom and apply it in the real world, possibly in areas of career interest.”

It also teaches other important life qualities, such as preparing a résumé and cover letter, talking to professionals, and assuming responsibility for assigned tasks within strict deadlines. “I try as a teacher to instill some of these qualities in the classroom, but winter term is where it truly develops.”

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