Column: Learning how to work hard for the money (in high school)


My favorite Christmas present as a child was the Barbie Styling Head — a mannequin with shoulder-length blonde hair.

I constantly asked Santa for a new one since my desire to keep the doll pristine would eventually pass. I liked cutting the hair into different styles — a one-length trim, short bob, pixie cut — until I had no choice but to break out the buzzer, turning Barbie into Sinead O’Connor every time.

But perfecting these different hairstyles on my Barbie became something more than just trying to figure out how to master trendy looks.

In a household where college was never discussed and my father was constantly reminding me that “you’re on your own and out the door at 18,” I remember jumping at the opportunity to learn a career skill while in high school.

I studied cosmetology at the Eastern Suffolk BOCES technical center in Bellport (now called Eastern Long Island Academy of Applied Technology) and learned more than just how to land a job in a salon. Teachers there also showed students how to be professionals and went over things like interviews, résumés and even the importance of a firm handshake. We learned how to network and participated in statewide competitions against other vocational schools.

Then there are the intangible rewards gained through the program, such as community service opportunities. For example, our class would visit nursing homes, where we practiced our hairdressing and manicure skills on very patient and friendly models who always looked forward to our visits.

Eastern Long Island Academy of Applied Technology has campuses in Bellport, Riverhead and Oakdale and often collaborate on projects. I was recently invited to tour the Harry B. Ward Technical Center in Riverhead and was pleased to find that all the opportunities I had as a student are still alive and well — and growing. [Click the tab below to see a slide show of my visit.]

I visited classrooms — located across the street from Riverhead High School — where students are learning cosmetology, animal sciences and automotive technology, among other career skills.

Longwood High School student Alexa Ingria is one of a few female students in the automotive course. She said she joined the program because she developed a passion for the field after growing up with her father’s classic cars.

“When I get here and get to work on cars — it’s a stress reliever,” she said. “I thought I would be treated differently, but these guys respect me. The atmosphere is very supportive.”

The class runs like a professional automotive center, complete with a customer service desk. Like cosmetology and other programs there, the school offers public services at a discount so that students can perfect their skills.

As the political climate in education continues to depress families and educators — as well as mounting pressures with everything related to college — I believe all students should take advantage of opportunities to learn these career skills while they’re still in high school.

Some students decide college isn’t for them. Others plan to work in these fields in order to pay for college, which is the path I ultimately took.

Marie Davis, who has been the Riverhead technical center’s principal for the last four years, said her students are not only earning industry certificates with their high school diplomas through the program — they’re also earning college credit.

“People traditionally think these are only for students going into work,” she said. “Some, yes, but we have an 80 percent average of students that continue their education in their career choice or put themselves through college.”

Traditionally, Ms. Davis said, the most popular courses are cosmetology and automotive. She’s also seen an uptick in the demand for law enforcement and culinary programs. The center experiences those shifts relative to television’s flavor of the month, she said.

Regardless of which program they choose, Ms. Davis said most students there learn Common Core standards more easily because they have a high level of interest in what they’re studying.

Like Alexa, myself and others, our decisions were based on rekindling our childhood curiosities about work and careers.

I still have all the mannequin heads that I practiced on while I was a cosmetology student. Of course, they’re buzzed now. Each one is dressed in a wig from past Halloweens and placed on a shelf, just staring at me — itching for a haircut.

Jen Nuzzo headshotJen Nuzzo is Times Review Media Group’s associate editor. She can be reached at 631-354-8033 or [email protected].




Top photo: Longwood High School student Alexa Ingria, who grew up with her father’s classic cars, has decided to pursue a career in the automotive industry. She’s working toward that goal by taking courses at the Harry B. Ward Technical Center in Riverhead.

Click on the tab below for more photos.