Experts offer tips for students to get ahead during winter break

By Yixuan Li
December 08, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the fall semester approaches its end, Penn State students are starting to make plans for winter break and holidays. During the time away from school, students can explore opportunities to get ahead and make the winter break meaningful by investing some of their free time in themselves and their future careers.

Robert Orndorff, senior director of Penn State’s Career Services, suggests three ways for students to stay engaged with their professional goals during the break.

“Make connections with people from home areas and family friends. You may be surprised by how much it could impact your career development.”

— Robert Orndorff,
senior director of
Career Services

Building and expanding professional networks

Orndorff encourages students to take advantage of networking options and look into part-time work while at home. “Going back to a summer job or taking on some small projects — everything counts,” he said.

“Make connections with people from home areas and family friends. You may be surprised by how much it could impact your career development,” Orndorff said. “You can reach out to local businesses to see if you can shadow someone for a week. Observing someone doing their work is helpful for exploring your career goals, as you will be able to get an overview of the real-world experience you are going to get for your dream job.”

Orndorff also suggests that students seek out resources from among Penn State’s alumni connections, as Penn State has the largest alumni association of its kind in the world.

LionLink, a program co-sponsored by the Alumni Association and Student Affairs, allows students to search for and make connections with alumni volunteer career coaches and get personal guidance on career development.

LinkedIn, a website for individuals and companies building professional profiles and networks has gained increasing popularity among many students and employers. The Alumni Association’s LinkedIn group has more than 64,500 members and can be a great resource for students and recent graduates.

Ashley Rippey, assistant director for professional development in the Smeal College of Business, says the winter break could be a great time for students to build their LinkedIn profiles and start reaching out to professionals in the industry.

 “Connect with alumni in the area and see if you can meet for coffee,” Rippey said. “Or set up an information interview to ask questions and learn about the jobs you want to apply for. It might seem intimidating at first, but a lot of alumni would love to build those connections with students who take the action of reaching out.”

Bob Martin, assistant dean for internships and career placement in the College of Communications, suggests short-term internships as something to consider as a jumpstart to a career and a way to get a taste of the professional world.

“Perspective employers wouldn’t necessarily focus on the length of the internship, but what you do and what you learn from it,” he said. “And three weeks could really make a difference.”

Martin advises students to reach out to career centers in different colleges in addition to researching opportunities themselves.

“There are usually a lot of resources available in professional organizations,” Martin said. “Some colleges would also offer credits for internships completed over winter breaks.”

 “It’s a time of the year to be engaged with the community and give back.”

— Orndorff

For many international students, winter break can be an especially exciting time of the year as many reunite with their families and friends back home.

For those who will be traveling overseas, they can also take the opportunity to network with professionals in their home countries and start building connections with the companies. Gaining work experience while enjoying time at home can be beneficial. Learning about job markets across cultures can help students make career decisions for after graduation. International students can also take advantage of volunteering with local communities and small businesses. 

Getting involved with community services

Winter break is also a good opportunity for students to do some volunteer work.

“It’s a time of the year to be engaged with the community and give back,” Orndorff said, adding that he volunteered for an elderly home during one winter break while he was in college by singing in choirs with some friends.

“It was great to see the smiles you put on other people’s faces,” he added. “You may also learn a lot through the service work on small project management and by taking initiative. Actions speak louder than the voices. It also makes you stand out to employers because you care about the community and invest your time to give back.”

Careen Yarnal, associate professor of recreation, park and tourism management (RPTM) and co-chair of the Council on Engaged Scholarship, offered a list of activities for students to stay engaged over the break.

For students who enjoy traveling, volunteering abroad can be an option to think about. Global Brigades, the largest student-led nonprofit for health and sustainable development in North America and Europe, provides opportunities for students to do volunteer work overseas during semester breaks, including winter, spring break and summer. Penn State’s chapter of Global Brigades offers students service options in all 10 of its disciplines: architecture, business, dental, engineering, environment, human rights, medical, microfinance, public health and water.

This year, 26 students from the chapter’s public health and medical brigades will travel to Nicaragua to empower rural communities to prevent common illnesses. Students will participant in home construction projects, shadow licensed doctors in medical consultations and assist in pharmacies under the direction of licensed pharmacists.

Deirdre Carlson, president of Global Brigades at Penn State, went to Panama on a public health brigade during her freshman year, and says it shaped her passion for global health and changed her career goals entirely.

“You grow so much during the time overseas,” Carlson said. “Helping out with the local community and immersing yourself with a different culture helps you discover and realize your own passion and provides you a different perspective in life.”

For students who are considering volunteering abroad, many fundraising activities are available throughout the year. Planning early and getting involved with fundraising will help reduce the cost of international travel.

“Some students will join Global Brigades a year before they actually take the trip so they can take extra time to fundraise,” Carlson said. “We have members who are able to cover their whole expenses through actively engaging in fundraising. That alone could be a meaningful experience for students.”

Students can apply for winter international academic programs early in the fall semester, with application deadlines varying in different colleges. Additionally, academic travel service Celestial Voyagers has academic abroad programs available for students in partnership with Penn State.

Finding resources and developing skills

Winter break could also be a great time to seek out different resources available and develop professional skills to prepare for the job market. “Take time to research the companies you are interested in and get prepared,” Orndorff said.

Linda Feltman, coordinator for global entrepreneurship week, suggests student entrepreneurs take the time to conduct some industry research as well. “If you attended any of the more than 75 Global Entrepreneurship Events in November, you may have learned that much of your success depends upon good research and careful planning.  Passion is necessary, too. But being able to execute is imperative,” she said.

“Take time to research the companies you are interested in and get prepared.”

— Orndorff

“As a Penn State student, you have access to the myriad of business databases through the Penn State library system,” Feltman said. “During winter break, pull up some of those databases and begin your research. If you missed the Penn State Libraries presentation, then reach out to the research librarians in the Business Library.”

Associate Professor of Communications Anne Hoag’s advice is to set aside a couple of hours per day to advance your digital footprint and skills. She says winter break is a great time to take some Lynda courses.

What is Lynda? It’s an online learning platform, free to Penn State students, Hoag explained. Normally there is a subscription fee for access to Lynda, but Penn State students have free access at It offers video tutorials on technology and software topics. There are also helpful tutorials for students on topics such as job searching strategies.

“Over break, if you set aside a couple of hours each day, you can return to campus in January with a whole new set of skills,” Hoag added. “You learn from your laptop at home, sipping cocoa in your holiday pajamas or après-ski or after a night out with your high school friends.”

Hoag created a playlist on Lynda for college students starting the transition from college life to the professional world. From her playlist, students can learn professional practices for social media, how to create an online portfolio, how to hunt for a job online, how to create and manage a blog, and basic competency in Microsoft Office, web analytics, coding, multi-media production, security and privacy.  

She counsels all students, “Whatever your major — journalism or microbiology, mechanical engineering or theatre — I think all college graduates should have basic competency with data management, web analytics, coding, digital footprint best practices and multimedia production.”

To find her playlist, “Digital Footprint Basics for College Students”, Penn State students can log onto then access the playlist at

Finally, there are several tasks that can be done during semester breaks, such as getting a professional-looking photo portrait, revising your resume and investing in a suit. Students can take some time to reflect and plan ahead for the next semester and, eventually, commencement. In addition, marking important dates in a calendar before the semester begins can help students stay organized. It can be easy to let these tasks lag when the semester gets busy.

Identifying priorities

Despite all of these suggestions for career-focused productivity, students also need to recognize winter break as an opportunity to relax. Mary Anne Knapp, a clinical social worker for Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, suggests that it could be important for students to actually take a break.

“Remember to pay attention to lifestyle basics, such as regular eating and sleeping, exercising and engaging in fun hobbies or reading — things that students may not be able to do during the semester,” Knapp said. “The break also is a time to catch up with friends and loved ones and spend quality time with others.”

According to Knapp, some students may find it helpful to assess internally and talk about relationships and relationship issues that haven't been addressed in the hustle and bustle of the semester. The break would be a great opportunity to share those things with other people in person.

“Also, using the time to practice a meditation or relaxation technique can also be a good use of the time,” she said.

Last Updated April 19, 2017