Your summer doesn’t have to be groundbreaking
“What did you do this summer?”
The question drums around in my mind like a bongo. It comes to me when I’m walking to campus and I run into that person who I spoke to five times in class last semester, or when I’m in my first meeting for a club, or — God forbid — when I’m doing an icebreaker (I really don’t like icebreakers). It reverberates in my dreams, haunting me — What will I say this time? Will I tell one of my rehearsed anecdotes? Or will I tell the truth, that I spent months either at work (at a spice shop or children’s clothing store depending on the day, if you must know), in my bed, or with a friend who wasn’t on vacation during that given week? No, I probably will not.
It is with great pleasure that I tell you we are almost out of the “what did you do this summer?” period. There may be a short “what did you do over Fall Break?”, slightly longer one for Thanksgiving Break, and an even longer period surrounding Winter Break, but they do not match up to the summer questioning season. Because, unlike these shorter breaks in between classes or fall and spring semesters, summer is four months, so you had to have done something worthwhile, right?
Some of this rant is highly hypocritical and maybe an ounce or two hyperbolic because, I admit, I do actually wonder what people do over the summer. However, on the receiving end of this question, I feel the need to have done something life-changing, fascinating, or worst of all, fruitful for my future.
When did summer stop being about taking a break from classes and work? I think it’s one of those things that come with getting older, the things that slowly suck the life and fun out of you, until you are a pawn in a never-ending work-eat-sleep cycle of terror, like how can you no longer enjoy a birthday without an existential crisis or do anything without having to pay for it? Anyway, I’m losing my point here.
The way people talk about summer at WashU — although coming from genuine interest, kindness, or, sometimes, an obligation to engage in small talk — feels loaded with expectations. If you were not on a study abroad program, learning about architecture in Italy or marine biology in Australia, then you must have been doing research in a lab, or an internship in Congress or at a highbrow company.
Basically, if you were not spending the summer doing something that grows your resume or your airline miles, what were you doing?
These expectations may be self-imposed; I have never had anyone actually accuse my summer activities of being inadequate. But the conversations around summer, including what you did or what you are planning to do, fortify expectations that, even if someone wants to reach them, aren’t attainable for a lot of people.
Just because someone does not do research or an internship doesn’t mean they didn’t try or weren’t qualified enough to get in. A large number of internships are unpaid, especially for undergraduate students. According to a 2021 study of over 12,000 students by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, about 40% of internships for college students are unpaid and PBS reported that 47% of interns were not paid in 2022. Not only are nearly half of internships unpaid, but the paid ones are often more competitive, with fewer people accepted, since college students want to be paid and companies don’t want to pay more interns than they need to.
Although internships are great for a college student’s resume and work experience, with many (over half, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers) even leading to a full-time position, many cannot afford to spend their summers pursuing an unpaid one. This predicament is especially true for those who are paying for tuition, for food, and/or for housing. The summer offers a prime opportunity to save money for the school year (when there is far less time to work). Additionally, if someone does get a paid internship, you can hardly assume that an intern’s salary will pay for their living expenses.
So even if someone wants to do an internship over the summer, they may not be able to pursue one due to factors out of their control. Pointing to this fact, a UW–Madison study found that of those who wanted to do an internship but were unable to (67% of students), 40% did not do an internship because they had to work a paid job instead.
For similar reasons, someone may be unable to do research, let alone a study abroad program, which costs thousands of dollars.
Perhaps even worse than “what did you do this summer?” is “what will you do next summer?”, especially when it is asked less than a month into the fall semester. In far too preemptive conversations about next summer, which will be following my sophomore year, many people are already planning to stay in St. Louis, most of whom want to do research through the school or similar “status” work elsewhere in the city. Most of the upperclassmen I know stayed in St. Louis this past summer as well, many of whom sublet an apartment.
While I and others consider the possibility of doing the same, there are multiple factors that make it hard to access. Subletting an apartment takes time and money which creates a further financial barrier, especially in combination with pursuing an unpaid or low-paid internship or research job. Yet if you cannot stay in St. Louis for the summer, not only will you perhaps feel like you did not do enough with your summer, but you may also feel like you’re missing out, watching your friends and peers spend the break together.
Clearly, these summer discussions are not the root cause of the phenomenon I’ve described, and the feelings of not being good enough are not the worst impact. The problems of unpaid and underpaid work for college students could create a cycle of inequality in the workforce. People who cannot access the opportunities that build their resumes may look worse to a post-college career or educational institution than someone who was able to stack their summers with experience. And the people who were more likely to access this work probably came from high-income backgrounds in the first place, creating a cycle of inequality for low-income students.
The barriers to internships, research, study abroad, and other opportunities are structural and need fixing. Interns and research assistants need to be paid better wages, and study abroad and other costly educational opportunities should have better financial aid and scholarship programs, or just to be less expensive.
However, there are steps we can all take to ensure we aren’t putting pressure on ourselves or others to have the perfect summers. At a school like WashU (where there is an excessive number of overachievers), there is a lot of talk about the incredible opportunities people pursued over the summer. My point is not that we should stop talking about our summers or that someone should feel ashamed of their summer internship, research, or study abroad.
It is simply important to be aware of the pressure that people may feel to have had incredibly productive or life-changing breaks, and of the significant barriers to these experiences. Next time you ask someone what they did this summer or describe what you did, keep these expectations in mind; perhaps don’t give them a 10-point presentation on your activities until they ask for more detail, and make sure to show genuine interest in what they did, even if it wasn’t something groundbreaking.
You can also reframe the questions you ask about someone’s summer. Rather than “What did you do?”, ask questions like: “What brought you joy this summer?”, “What was something that piqued your interest?”, or “What was your favorite summer memory?”.
On the other side of the conversation, if you feel that your summer did not meet the standards of a WashU student, remember that much of the pressure you feel has been pushed onto all of us, rather than there being actual judgment against you. Many of the reasons you were unable to do something more “impressive” may have been out of your control. For the same reasons, when planning for next summer, try to think about the things that make you happy or interested and make an effort to bring those into your summer. Value your summer based on those things that bring you joy rather than those things that build your resume or meet some unreachable standard you feel.