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Take a break . . . and go to work

Converting winter breaks from college into cash - or careers

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Jean Pierre Fontanot finished fall semester's exams on a Friday in December and started work at an internship the following Monday. The Bennington (Vt.) College sophomore says he could think of nothing better than earning money and getting work experience over winter break.

"After you graduate, you've worked for four firms and you can have four recommendation letters for graduate school or a job - that really sets you up," he says. His internship at a Cambridge, Mass., architecture firm will last more than two months. "I'll be tired, but it's totally worth it."

Welcome to the new model of winter break. It used to mean a week or two of hibernating at home, catching up on novels, cavorting with siblings - whatever a student felt like after a hard semester's work.

Not for today's students. Breaks have gotten longer - commonly a month or six weeks - and expectations higher. Students increasingly have a go-get-'em attitude toward vacation time. Even when students would prefer to lollygag, many schools require work or study during break, whether it builds the rsum, broadens the mind, or serves the community.

"There's that all-American ambition," says Alexis Salas, a senior at Amherst (Mass.) College, who for the past two years directed a "winternship" program for Amherst students to work for nonprofits or the government in Washington during the month of January. She says they don't need an all-out vacation: "People who come here stay up late and are used to working hard."

The 4-1-4 calendar

In the 1950s, students had a week or so off at the holidays to return home and relax. Then in the '60s, the winter break started to warm up. Some liberal arts schools joined the "4-1-4" calendar that has a January mini-term between two full semesters - an arrangement that persists today at many colleges.

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