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How I Labored Over My Summer Vacation

Miller-McCune's first-ever summer intern returns this summer to discuss the pressure many college students face to fill their off hours with something useful.
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April fizzled. May skipped to a close. June loomed. Then there it was, the college student's nightmare, arrayed in all its spectacular uncertainty — the Summer Off.

I'd never really planned on dedicating time to doing nothing. Like any bright-eyed bushy-tailer who has long been indoctrinated in a firm belief in the importance of extracurriculars, I proudly maintained the requisite series of year-round jobs, internships and volunteer hours. Then I found myself on the cusp of the upcoming three months and, for the first time since perhaps the fifth grade, I had nothing to do.

When did doing nothing become such a terribly frightening prospect? The summer vacations I'd read about as a kid in books from Pride and Prejudice to Harry Potter seemed filled with long days of idleness. And yes, though I found something to enjoy in my numerous activities, I sought them out with a sort of compulsion  anything to stave off the inevitable question, "So how are you spending your time these days?"

Which raises the question of motivation: Why do so many young people strain to fill their schedules with an endless stream of internships, jobs and volunteer hours? (That is, assuming the financial pressures that the current recession has so amplified don't force them to take any paid employment that fits in their academic schedule.)

The obvious answer is increasingly competitive college admissions, but beyond that it gets a bit more interesting. A recent study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, surveyed freshman students from 1966 to 2006, and it reveals that not only are college freshmen graduating high school with higher grades than ever before, but in 2006, 72.6 percent rated their drive to achieve above average or in the top 10 percent as compared to their peers — the most ever. Some 20.8 percent planned to graduate college with honors as compared to 4.1 percent in 1967, and 60.6 percent expected to make at least a B average during their four years in university.

Impressive, but a culture of ambition comes at a price. In 2007, more students than ever before reported feeling "overwhelmed by all I had to do," and significantly fewer students today spend time at parties or reading for pleasure.

Also, unsurprisingly, the objectives behind getting a college education have changed drastically, reflecting a student population that feels an unprecedented pressure to achieve material success. In 1967, 85.8 percent of students cited an essential objective of college to be "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" — today, that number has halved, and the essential objective of choice has shifted to "being very well-off financially" at 73.4 percent.

Where financial success is concerned, a competitive climate means there's not a minute to be wasted, hence most summer internships and jobs have little to do with pocket change. For most students, it's natural to choose getting ahead over a little relaxation — why take a break when standards for accomplishment seem to rise every year?

The concept of doing nothing has had a resurgence in the general consciousness over the past few years, in part due to the popularity of professor and author Tom Lutz's book Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America.

As Lutz says in the first chapter, "Work, in America, has always been thus: the stuff of fear and exuberance, of the highest calling and the lowest degradation. And not working, doing nothing, has always been the same." In essence, the practice of doing nothing, of taking time off for which you have no intended purpose, has fluctuated in popularity for close to hundreds of years. But one of Lutz's most interesting insights, and one that may indeed ring true for young people today, applies to workers and loafers alike: "The feeling of accomplishment is what we look for, even more than accomplishment itself."

As the Higher Education Research Institute's surveys show, today's students attach a feeling of accomplishment not to developing a meaningful life philosophy, but to academic success and the financial success they feel is sure to follow. Yet this latter interpretation of what it means to succeed carries with it an enormous amount of pressure — to garner top grades, academic honors and extracurricular accolades — and drives young people to strict schedules of classes, jobs, internships and activities at an age when what they may really need is the openness and freedom to explore their interests.

And for that, as I learned this summer, you need time. Enough to read, sleep, surf the Web, watch TV, cook, listen to music or just laze around staring vaguely off into space. Yes, you can squeeze all these things into a week packed with a job, music lessons, homework, spinning class, tutoring, an internship and student group meetings (trust me, I've tried). But what I found this summer was that in giving myself just a few months of time with nothing inherently productive on the agenda, I've come away with a hand-sewn canvas bag, intricate plot details of the first two seasons of Alias and the presence of mind to see just a little more clearly what I want to do with my life.

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