Sixteen-year-old Sushant Bhatia could have spent his summer days far away from the halls of academia, enjoying his time off from school, relaxing somewhere in the shade. Instead, he chose to spend them in a classroom at Holyoke Community College, exploring potential careers.
"I wanted to experience what college is like," said Bhatia, a high school junior from Easthampton.
Bhatia was one of 25 high school students taking classes this summer at HCC through a new program called SEARCH - Student Enrichment and Researching Careers at HCC. The grant-funded program offers high school students the opportunity to take college classes and earn college credit, potentially saving them money and shortening the time it takes to earn their college degrees.
The program offers students a choice of three career-related courses: Robotics (four credits), Computer Applications (three credits) and Career Readiness (one credit). Besides the classes, the program includes a component where students can meet with academic advisors. Students also have access to a computer tutorial to help them strengthen their skills in math and English in preparation for the College Placement Test.
The main goal of the program is to create a seamless path from high school to college to a career, so the choices students make now can help them later on. Many of the students who participated this summer have already taken career-related courses in high school.
"It's a career development program," said Christine Holbrook, HCC's interim dean of Cooperative Education and Career Services. "We want them to see what it's like being on a college campus and give them a little jumpstart on college and their careers."
In Robotics (Engineering 110), students built robots using Lego pieces and then used computers to program them to perform certain tasks, such as move around a track. Computer Applications (Business 115) introduced students to computer hardware and software programs, including word processing, database management, graphics, e-mail and spreadsheets.
In Career Readiness, students used a computer program called Career Cruising to assess their interests and skills. The program asks a series of 116 questions about the users' likes and dislikes and 45 about their personal skills, and then recommends related college majors and careers. Students in the class examined careers in art, medicine, business, engineering, fine and performing arts, education and human services.
"We've got an array of people in here," said Career Center coordinator Richard Powers, who taught the class.
Bhatia said he was interested in a career either in the medical field or architecture.
"It's been a lot of fun and interesting, and I'm learning a lot," he said.
For homework, students in Career Readiness were required to complete two occupational profiles.
"One of the big things we're hoping for," said Holbrook, "is that they develop a career action plan."
Using the program, Jhonathan Escobar, 16, found his way to the website for Merrimack College, which offers a major in civil engineering.
"Good," said Powers, "You found a college. You've moved ahead and you're looking at schools that have the majors you want."
"I'm good at math," said Escobar, a junior at Holyoke High School. "I have a cousin who is a civil engineer and he makes good money."
While the summer SEARCH program ended Aug. 2, Holbrook said she hopes the program will carry on into the school year. She hopes to pull together employer panels where students can ask questions, learn about the job market and get a feel for different careers.
"We'll continue career readiness, focusing on juniors and seniors in the area," she said.
Photos: (Left) Sushant Bhatia, of Easthampton, tests his robot. (Right) Jhonathan Escobar, of Holyoke, explores possible careers.