Kyle Soja came to HCC's annual High School Career Exploration Fair intending to investigate options in the medical field. But that didn't stop him from pausing at the display table for the Holyoke Fire Department and trying on about 70 pounds' worth of firefighting gear.
"It's heavy and hot," said Soja, a junior from Chicopee Comprehensive High School. "Firefighting would be a second career choice for me. It feels good to help people."
Soja was just one of dozens of area high school students who tried on the equipment with the help of Holyoke Fire Inspector Maria Pelcher during the fair. This was the 16th year Holyoke Community College has hosted the event, which attracted more than 300 students from 11 area schools.
"It's an opportunity for students to talk to business people and hear about opportunities that they hadn't thought of before and maybe spark some interest," said Gail Canon, a school-to-work counselor who brought 46 students from Easthampton High School. "You never know."
There were more than 40 vendor tables in the Bartley gym for students to explore. They could talk to military recruiters from the Air Force, Army or National Guard, learn about fingerprint analysis from Mass. State Police Crime Scene Services or candle-making from representatives from the Yankee Candle Co., practice hairstyling on a mannequin courtesy of DiGrigoli School of Cosmetology and get their blood pressure taken by a nurse from Holyoke Medical Center.
HCC's Engineering and Robotics Department had three full tables of equipment and toys for students to examine, including working robots, Van de Graaf generators, a hovercraft and an EKG machine with a simulated canine heartbeat.
"It's all related to physics, astronomy, engineering and robotics," said HCC lab technician Mark Normantowicz.
One of the most popular display items was a tiny pink holographic pig that seemed to disappear when amazed and frustrated students tried to touch it. "It's just a mirage," Normantowicz said.
Jasmine Lopez, a senior from Putnam Vocational and Technical High School in Springfield, spent time talking with Kevin Lynn, a career counselor from FutureWorks in Springfield. She was interested in information to help her on job interviews. She said she is leaning toward a career in nursing. "But I also want to see what else is out there," she said.
Lynn said high school students are often shy about taking advantage of career services such as those offered at FutureWorks, which has a dedicated office for youth services called YouthWorks that he runs. "I try to get across to them that I'm not going to tell them what to do," he said. "I'm trying to get a feel for what they need. It can be overwhelming."
Keith Hensley, executive director of Workforce and Economic Development for HCC, said the purpose of the fair is to give high school students an idea of career options so they will be better prepared to make the right educational choices. "Career pathways and educational pathways go hand in hand," he said. "The assumption is that most of these students will go on to higher education and the earlier they have an idea of the career choices that are available, the better off they will be."
Photos: (Left) Kevin Lynn, a career counselor from FutureWorks, talks to Jasmine Lopez, a senior from Putnam Vocational and Technical High School.(Right) Chicopee Comprehensive student Kyle Soja tries on firefighting equipment with the help of Holyoke Fire Inspector Maria Pelcher.