For the past three weeks while on summer vacation, Carey Walker has been waking up at 5:30 a.m.
Arriving at The Mall in Columbia almost three hours before stores open, she wasn't there to shop or browse and she definitely wasn't there to just "hang out."
She was doing landscaping, attending marketing meetings, visiting construction sites and working on the 1993 mall budget.
HTC Carey and 18 other Maryland's Tomorrow students are participating in a program called Summer in the Mall. Through a collaboration with the mall management office, Maryland's Tomorrow of Howard County created a pilot internship program that gives students a chance to discover various job opportunities through working at The Mall.
"I tried to get a job at Laurel Mall but they said you can't work without prior experience," said Carey, 16, a sophomore at Atholton High. "But what I couldn't understand was how can you get experience without getting hired?"
Summer in The Mall is part of a commitment from Maryland's Tomorrow, a state-wide program that helps students who may drop out of school, complete their high school education, said the program's county coordinator Sue Bullock.
The program gives students the opportunity from Monday to Thursday for four weeks to work in career areas like landscaping, advertising, public relations, retail operations, office management, engineering, building maintenance, security, visual merchandising and special events. They also get paid a stipend of $225 at the program's end.
"I don't have to get here at six in the morning but it's the only time my mom can drop me off," Carey said. Interns start their supervised work at 9 a.m. and finish at 1 p.m. "I had friends that signed up for this but they dropped out because they didn't want to get up early. I stuck with it so I think it's their loss."
"I think it's a great learning experience," said Carey, who was busy taking lights off an artificial Christmas tree. "I got to do things that I normally wouldn't get to do over the summer.
Advisers keep track of these students on a year-round basis, which includes helping them gain summer jobs or attend summer schooling, for four years. In the fifth year, the program helps students make the transition from school to work or school to higher education, she said. "Kids have a sheltered environment at school because there are some rhythms in the school world that aren't realistic," Ms. Bullock said. "In the work world, they don't shut down for summer vacation, close for President's Day or give you a week off for spring break.
"I wanted to do something for our students that would give them honest feedback about work experience," she said. "We decided The Mall was the best place to do it because it has a real good range of jobs that kids were interested in.
"This internship gives them a realistic perspective of what work will be like in the future, and it helps them decide what they're interested in," she added.
Janine Johnson had thought she'd be a clinical psychologist in ++ the future, but after getting a different taste of careers at the mall, she said she'd like to be in the marketing business as well.
"We got to sit in a meeting yesterday and I saw them make decisions on next year's advertising campaigns," said Janine, a 15-year-old junior at Hammond High School. "It's really interesting and I liked writing our own press releases for the program too.
"It's a lot of hard work, especially if you're doing landscaping, but it's fun too," she said. "This was a great idea and I'd advise anyone to sign up for it next year."
For Jay Becraft, the internship helped make his dreams of becoming a police officer more concrete. He worked as a security guard at The Mall during his entire internship and will leave for the Maryland National Guard in August.
"I've known that I wanted to be a police officer for a long time and this just gave me a taste of what it will be like," said Mr. Becraft, 19, who graduated from Howard High School last year. "They gave me a lot of responsibilities and I even got to chase a shoplifter once."
Besides security and marketing, the students who always wear name tags to identify themselves, can also be found fixing air conditioners, trimming bushes, watering plants or dressing store windows. A lot of work is done behind the scenes like working on the roof, where customers might only get a fleeting glance of them.
At the conclusion of the program, some of the 18 interns will prepare to return to school. Others like Carey have found jobs and will continue working throughout the school year.
The management office was pleased with how well the interns worked and hopes to continue the program next year. Plans are also under way to expand Summer at The Mall to other area malls and possibly state-wide, said manager of sales and marketing Danielle Morgenthaler.
"Our biggest fear was that we wouldn't be organized enough to make it happen for these kids," Ms. Morgenthaler said. "But it's been great and it's been fun sharing what we know with them.
"I would like to see it happen again next summer and hopefully getting other businesses like hospitals in on this as well," she added. "It's a great opportunity."