Brunswick, Maine — Sam Kemos doesn’t care about fame or fortune. The Harpswell Coastal Academy (HCA) senior strives to be a hotshot guitarist, but he doesn’t need to be a rock star. Twice a week, Kemos interns at Kennebec Instrument & Amplifier in Brunswick, where owner Joel Amsden is a renowned luthier who custom-makes and repairs stringed instruments. The shop has introduced Kemos to a universe of career possibilities because session techs to music teachers wander inside. Besides earning course credit, Kemos now understands an instrument’s mechanics because he’s spent hours rebuilding and restringing them — even resuscitating one guitar from the watery grave of a flooded basement.
For some, an internship is college application padding. At HCA, Community Based Learning (CBL) — which encompasses internships, fieldwork, and service learning — is the big reveal.
“Fieldwork is a highly valued component in expeditionary learning so it’s always been integral to our curriculum,” says CBL Coordinator Emily Gadd. Starting in the lower grades, students might collect water samples at the beach or study painting styles at a museum — experiences beyond the classroom that make connections to a course.
Because of HCA’s student-directed philosophy, the CBL component for juniors and seniors can consist of vocational or college courses, an internship, or even a paid job. “If a student is working at Walmart or on a lobster boat, those are prime learning opportunities,” says Gadd. “We want to view them through the same lens we’d apply to an internship.”
Companion seminar courses are the analytic bridge where students identify communication, leadership, and work styles — or deconstruct workplace conflict to assess what’s helping or hindering them. The first seminar’s guiding question is: How does knowing myself help me engage in community and guide my future? The second seminar’s guiding question is: How does working in the community help me understand myself and my goals?
Amsden’s mentorship, for example, has given Kemos a template to emulate. “I consider Joel the Samurai,” says Kemos. “He tells me what he expects and leaves me to do it. He might check in, but he doesn’t look over my shoulder and I’m not afraid to ask questions. He’s the kind of leader I’d like to be.”
The course makes explicit what students are experiencing but may not be able to identify or articulate, says Gadd. The worksite becomes a laboratory, with group discussions and field journals as beacons for self-awareness. “Students set goals that incorporate their interests and values,” she adds. “They examine where they are now and what they aspire to.”
HCA’s smaller size and individualized mission is an advantage. “Some schools’ approach is that students should figure out what they want to do with life and then do a relevant internship,” Gadd explains. “But a lot of people don’t know what they want to do. Here, the work experience doesn’t have to be directly related to a career goal. We will also find something for those who may feel they don’t have a focus. The kid who says ‘I don’t know what I’m into’ can disappear in a larger school environment.” For those students, HCA may find placement with an existing partner, including humane societies, land trusts, and farms fighting food insecurity.
Other students such as Kemos know exactly what they want. He was able to chase his passion and even borrow a custom guitar: “I’ll never play that well again,” he sighs. “Being immersed in the community is such a valuable experience and not something every school offers. It doesn’t matter what your interest is, HCA will find an opportunity for you.”