Seek out the unconventional and say “yes”


Erin and her friends pose for a picture in the middle of working.

When I look back at my high school experience as a bittersweet-yet-burnt-out senior, the summer experiences that best shaped who I am today were ones that I randomly found on the internet—no joke. 

My friends know me as extremely blunt, so I’m going to be extremely honest with you in an attempt to provide some big-sis insight for my friends planning to attend a postsecondary institution—it’s no secret that college admissions officers look for how you spent your summers, whether it be volunteering, research in a lab, or developing a “nonprofit” organization that reaches its peak junior year, never to be heard from again. I recognized the necessity to do something worthwhile with my three months each summer, but I wanted to push myself to grow with opportunities that made me uncomfortable, in a good way.

In my four years, I surrounded myself with high-achieving friends who were off spending their summers on research or at prestigious summer programs (which is amazing!), but those were never something I was interested in. A whole chunk of the prestigious programs were also thousands of dollars, and I never realized how many free summer programs were out there.

I spent hours on the internet searching for opportunities with keywords of what I was interested in doing that summer. For instance, before my junior year, I was interested in professional journalism, so I scoured the depths of the internet for a free journalism summer program in Illinois, and it delivered in microseconds after I hit the search bar. I wanted a hands-on program/workshop where I could learn from professionals, and I wanted the program to be free or low-cost. I ended up spending a week at Eastern Illinois University for an all-expenses-paid journalism workshop where I was able to learn from professional journalists and interview strangers around Charleston with other high schoolers from around the country. 

Each summer experience will teach you something different that you wouldn’t have learned if you didn’t try it out. I value that week as a hands-on student-journalist because I realized that although I love interviewing and writing, journalism isn’t something I want to pursue as a career, and that’s okay. I can still cherish the nights screaming in the dorm room lobby to the Lemonade Mouth soundtrack and cramming eight mattresses into a tiny dorm for a girls’ sleepover. 

Seeking out summer experiences that make you slightly nervous will lead to the most growth. During a summer where I had lots of time to spend and a desire to spend it for others, I sought out (again, from the internet) and applied for a position on a work crew washing dishes for three weeks at a Young Life camp in Michigan, and I got accepted. I was so incredibly nervous to be spending three weeks away from home in a place where I knew absolutely no one, but I said yes anyway. 

Why on God’s green Earth would I want to spend eight hours a day for three weeks washing dishes, you ask? Because I knew that washing dishes would help campers who had never been to summer camp enjoy themselves with their friends, but I never anticipated the strong friendships I would form, the memories I’d make and how mentally and physically strong I became. My life took a turn for the better after that summer, as I had met people who became mentors and lifelong friends that inspired me to live life selflessly and fully. 

An added bonus is that you can write about your experiences in your college essays, and it’ll be genuine because of your passion and the uniqueness of the experience. My month dishwashing provided inspiration for an essay around learning to rely on others after a childhood of independence, and my week of journalism camp was the basis for an essay about the struggle of collaborating with other student-journalists with different journalistic styles and from different cultural backgrounds. 

So, my advice to you, dear reader, would be to not only  take advantage of free academic summer opportunities that can be found with a Google search but to make sure these programs actually interest you and are not solely for prestige. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “suck the marrow out of life.” In my case, I seized every possible summer opportunity I could not for pure prestige, but because I was genuinely interested in the subject and wanted to grow from the experience.

Not to get all sentimental or Pinterest-quotey, but life is a dishwashing sponge to be squeezed and wrung out until no more life can possibly be lived. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and do things that make you slightly nervous over the gorgeous summer days.