This article was first published in the Summit County Business Journal. By Kim Marquis.

Students in a new Colorado Mountain College internship program not only gained work experience this summer but also learned how to get things done independently on the job.

CMC junior Ashlee Andrews picks radishes in the community garden at the Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge campus. In her service learning course this summer, the sustainability major led children’s camps for local nonprofit High County Conservation Center. Andrews said the experience taught her how to work independently within an organization. Photo by Kim Marquis.

Sustainability major Ashlee Andrews, a junior, earned three credits and a $500 scholarship through her work at High County Conservation Center as a service learning student, but more importantly, she learned how to lead a project independently and know when to ask for direction, she said.

The service learning course had her leading 6- and 7-year-olds through the non-profit’s garden centers to pick radishes, play with worms and get to know the inside of a greenhouse. Andrews did not just work with the children but organized and led the camps for the organization.

“I gained a lot of confidence and communications skills, learning when to just get things done a little faster and when to ask for help,” she said.

Volunteerism is an important part of the new program, which lets students pick a non-profit where they will work, but according to CMC Faculty Member Don Haggerty, developing leadership and other workplace skills through the internship is just as important.

“It’s nice to say they understand more about engagement in the community, but we want to make sure that gets translated into the student’s ability to lead in service,” said Haggerty, a dean of graduate studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., who helped develop the program for CMC.

Weekly online class meetings and self-assessments help students like Andrews define their personal growth and development as it applies to a work environment.

“We treat the experience as you would just as if it’s their first job,” Haggerty said.

Knowing that real-life employment can be challenging for young adults, Haggerty said the course is designed to help students deal with a level of training and mentorship that can often be less than they feel they need when starting a new job.

“Most people coming into a new workplace and new job situation feel they’re kind of thrown into the water,” he said. “They are required to figure things out on their own and that can be very difficult.”

The class spends a lot of time talking about each student’s experiences at work and the challenges of leading within an organization, where relationships with others might impact their project. Students choose the organization where they will volunteer and help choose and define a project. The course is a safety net and coaching mechanism for the students as they have these first work experiences through it.

Andrews started a regular job this month as assistant manager at the Family Intercultural Resource Center’s new Summit Thrift and Treasure in Breckenridge. She will continue to go to school and work to finish her degree in sustainability, one of two four-year degrees offered at CMC.

“Ashlee’s big learning was how to work in an environment that has much less structure, where you have to be empowered and accountable,” Haggerty said. “She caught on to that right away, and it’s why she felt this class and experience contributed so much to her capabilities, and helped her move forward in a new job.”

Andrews added that work experience within her field of sustainability will help her choose the rest of her classes and plan her career.

“It’s such a broad discipline and so new, so it’s really important to get out there and find out what your passions are so you can decide how to structure your learning toward what you want to do,” she said.

In the case of Andrews’ summer service learning class, she found out that in addition to a passion for food, she likes to garden but has much to learn about it.

The service learning class is only one new work experience opportunity at CMC. Other internships, such as the culinary degree program at Keystone Resort, where future chefs apprentice for 6,000 hours over a three-year period, offer multiple ways to gain work experience before graduation.

The college is meeting with area nonprofits and private businesses to develop new project opportunities for students. Only two students took the service learning course this summer, but Haggerty said he would prefer to have at least six students, that way there is more sharing of work-related challenges and among students.

This article was first printed in the Summit Business Journal.