Lamenting the loss of summer for college kids

By Randi Olin

In the summer of 1987 I took a job as a camp counselor, at the same sleepaway camp I had gone to as a kid. My camp bestie Heidi called soon after we’d returned from our freshmen year of college to ask if I wanted to go back to Tyler Hill. Neither of us had a plan. I could work at the Athlete’s Foot on Central Avenue, my after-school job during my senior year of high school, but my love for camp—and the thought of being outside after months cooped up in the library stacks—superseded the minimum-wage opportunity to sell sporting apparel and sneakers. “I’m in,” I told her.

Eight weeks later I went back to my Midwestern university, blonde-streaked and tanned; my biggest responsibility that summer had been dock duty at the lake during all-camp general swim. I held other paying jobs the next few summers—as a day camp group leader, a tennis instructor at a local country club, anything to keep me outdoors. These fun and relaxing jobs didn’t derail me from my career path, and I was thankful for the summers outside—so was my sun-kissed hair—especially the fall after graduation, when I sat among other exhausted first-year law students in a Civ Pro lecture hall.

My daughter, a college freshman, began pondering her own summer plans over winter break. “Everyone is getting an internship,” she said. “Or living in the City and getting a job.”

I wondered if after the rigor of freshman year, an internship or “real” summer job was the best idea. A UCLA study from 2014 found that nearly one in every 10 freshmen have admitted to feeling depressed, their overall mental health reported at an all time low. For this particular group of young adults who are already facing more mental health-related issues than we’ve seen in years, undue year-round pressure seems counterintuitive to the very thing we should be promoting: their emotional well-being.

What’s more, how can my daughter be expected to know what she should be doing over the summer when her major is still undecided? At her university, she will choose among 260 degree options, and 75 majors and 90 minors available within her particular college. She says a summer experience might help to narrow down the options to figure out what she might want to do in three years after she graduates, who she wants to be. But I think she needs a break from the stress and emotional challenges of her freshman year, and from thoughts about her future. What I’d really like her to do is seek a more laid back summer experience, one that will give her some pocket money, maybe one that’s outside. Similar to how it used to be when I was her age, when life was carefree and fun during the summer months.

But what do our summer job experiences from years ago really mean to our kids? Summer jobs in the 1980s and 90s were taken at a time before employment opportunities were so easily accessible, before applying for a position was accomplished by a simple upload and click, before post-graduate plans were discussed within the first semester, before the words mental health were spoken out loud.

I don’t know what it’s like to be in college these days, how my daughter copes with the stress of it all. I’d like to think not much has changed since I’ve graduated but I chuckle when I realize that’s precisely what my parents must have thought too.

My daughter tells me it feels natural to be working toward the future, even during the summer months, that it’s part of her generation’s culture. “Most of the classes I take, the jobs and internships I apply to, they are all calculated steps toward a future goal,” she says. As much as I want my daughter to get ahead, buzzwords such as “resume builder” and “job experience,” the kind that are permeating college campuses as early as fall of freshman year, feel like too much pressure.

But my daughter doesn’t feel overwhelmed. And I realize that perhaps it’s more difficult for me than it is for her, as a parent who is watching it all from afar. It’s a different world than it once was when I was her age, that much is obvious. Yet, at the same time, I lament for her the loss of the summers I had, when college-aged kids could spend June, July and August working various jobs without intention, without any direct relationship whatsoever to the “future.”

These days, internships, especially those that are paid, are more likely to lead my daughter to a full-time job offer. But I’d like to think there’s still a place for the old-school summer gigs as well. A lifeguard or camp counselor—summer jobs that still provide valuable hands-on experience, in a low-key environment, with the type of emotional space our college kids need, a pause button I was so fortunate to have enjoyed. Instead, my daughter is part of a different generation, one that moves quickly, at a constant pace, always planning for the next thing. I just hope that while she continues her march forward this summer, she will take a few moments to let the sun shine in.

Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. Her favorite summer job was undoubtedly her 8-week stint as a camp counselor at Tyler Hill Camp in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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