Not that many years ago, the sharpest engineering students at fiercely competitive Stanford University might have spent their summer vacation bagging groceries or surfing at Malibu. No longer. Now at least one dozen of those students are enrolled in the Technology Ventures Co-op Program, Stanford's nine-month curriculum to teach engineering students to become entrepreneurs. Two or three students apply for every spot in the program. Those who are brilliant and lucky enough to make it can look forward to a dose of real-world experience, as well as, in many cases, a plum job after graduation.

A big plus of the two-year-old program is the summer internship, which pairs engineering students with high-tech, fast-growth companies, notably in Silicon Valley. Businesses chase these talented young people the way baseball teams pursue big-name free agents. For every student in the internship "draft," there are 10 companies standing in line, says Tom Byers, the associate professor of engineering at Stanford who runs the program. "Any one of those students would be a great asset to a company," says Mark Gainey, founder and president of Kana Communications Inc., an Internet-software company in Palo Alto, Calif., which snagged one of the interns last summer.

An entrepreneurial internship is a common stepping stone to a permanent job in Silicon Valley, meaning that recruits who are usually barely old enough to drink are often awarded a handsome salary, stock options, and the prospect of becoming very rich.

Cynthia Yu, 22, who received stock options while interning last summer at MMC Networks, in Sunnyvale, Calif., which designs network switch processors, expects to receive more options when she starts work with the company full-time after graduating in May. Yu is already talking about paying off the sizable debt she has rung up as a Stanford student.

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