Why shouldn't a college summer be fun?

Posted: May 29, 2014

In college, we spoke often of "the real world," a mythical place beyond the ivied walls. The real world could be a beast, a panacea, an alien planet, a fungible concept where we would eventually dwell.

Summer was when we were released from the coddling of our intellectual playpen into some version of that real world. Those seasons spent in offices shifting paper - we had paper back then - seemed like three-month dress rehearsals for adult life. We donned costumes that approximated responsibility: closed-toe shoes and a navy jacket, the cloak of maturity. Often, we felt like actors, impostors, or spies leading a double life. Certainly, I did.

Summer is also essential for slowing down, to interrupt the quotidian and adopt more languid ways. Our son, a rising junior in college, loves his camp on the Eastern Shore like a second home. His mother kept pushing for him to dip a toe, a closed one, into the real world, to audition for the role of holding a real job.

There is only so long, I thought, that you can keep responsibility at bay, with another summer of flip-flops, bug juice, and lanyards. At some point, camp would appear in the rearview mirror.

We struck a deal. If Nick wasn't elevated to village chief - yes, a job and promotion - he would visit the college career center and find a real job, possibly indoors and approximating adult life, an inch of type to swell the resumé that, for now, is a buffet of camp and more camp.

Then, the text erupted: "Made Village Chief!!!"

It was as though he had won a MacArthur or something. And, to Nick, he had.

These are the moments when parents make peace with what we want for our children, and who they happen to be, another step in the big work of letting go. Jobs that make people three exclamation marks of happy are rare, at any age, of greater value than those that pay more, and might appear like some glittering prize on a resumé that may be read by few.

Experiences matter, and why shouldn't a college summer be fun? There is an entire possible adulthood of office jobs and navy blazers. Or, in the wired economy, office jobs and flip-flops.

Nick will manage counselors, lead young boys, teach skills, help create indelible memories. A summer internship might have appeared more enticing and resumé-stacking, but it frequently pays less - if at all. The noxious assumption is that cool jobs are luxuries, entitlements, where parents serve as underwriters, and pay to have their children not be paid. Many interns are campers in the real world. The positions are often awarded to students who can most afford to forfeit salaries. It's an offensive conceit that results in less economic diversity in those professions, stunting vision and growth.

As parents, we worry that our children may not have a head start, especially in this anxious economy. But college graduates are already so far ahead despite crushing tuition and potential debt. In a paper published this month in the journal Science, MIT economist David Autor argues that not obtaining a four-year degree will cost a worker half a million dollars in income. College turns out to be a bargain. During the last few decades, the value of a college education has only increased.

I spent two consecutive college summers in law firms so formal and overstaffed as to border on farce. Associates did the work of summer associates. Summer associates performed the work of paralegals. Paralegals - I was one - did the work of trained chimps. Our temp typist, I kid not, was a Rhodes scholar. And a lousy typist.

We were assigned to a giant squid of litigation. The second summer, a group of us undid the work of the previous one while billing our client at obscene hourly rates that never graced our paychecks. Our client was Howard Hughes. He had the misfortune to die between those two summers.

We wore grown-up clothes, played at being adults, and rarely went outside while wondering why we were working so hard on behalf of Howard Hughes.

I did not go to law school. Those summer jobs became inches of type that eventually fell off the resumé and informed little of my life other than igniting the search for a job that would make me three exclamation marks of happy.

Our fortunate son, the village chief, already has one.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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