Charting a course

Somehow, it’s already started. The emails from the Office of Career Counseling are clogging up my inbox; my parents have started asking; people are quietly talking about November deadlines. I feel like the warm weather has just barely passed and it’s already open season on summer internships. Round one of applications for some large companies’ positions is due in a matter of weeks, leaving many of us confronted with a variety of small- and large-scale questions. But one line of thought sticks out in particular: What do I want to do?

For some people, this answer is already clear. Internships are like college visits that give us glimpses into the real world instead of a college campus. You go to the office, which is really very similar to a classroom, and spend your day trying to pick up as many new skills as you can while showing off how capable you are. At the end of the summer, you head back to campus with an idea of whether or not you would ever set foot in an office like that again, not to mention a LinkedIn profile beefed up with dozens of new connections. This way, when you graduate, you have a resume chock-full of experience and a stack of recommendation letters that will hopefully wedge the door of opportunity wide enough that you can slip through into the successful working life that Williams has prepared you for.

But though that narrative is a clear one – and a familiar one – I’m not sure the internship route is the best one. Do concerns that our world is becoming more and more degree-oriented – a graduate degree is basically the new bachelor’s degree, and you need an internship to get to that grad degree – mean that we should buy into the system completely?

Although it’s certainly true that the experiences gathered and skills acquired during the course of a traditional internship are valuable, there is much to be gained from non-traditional summers as well. We’re in college, which begs a classic question: When else will we ever have the opportunity to take three months and do with them what we will? For most people, the answer is probably close to never. The real world isn’t entirely conducive to moving to a new city or country for a few months just to try out a job.

Clearly it’s not practical for most students to pack up and travel the world for the summer, or even to work without pay. But blindly following thousands of other college students up the corporate ladder isn’t the only other option. Some of the greats of recent memory, particularly in the field of technology, achieved better-than-average success through completely unconventional methods. The fact is, the skills we pick up in the real world are those that are most likely to help us in the job market, in achieving our goals and in leading interesting lives. Sitting behind a desk all day might get you a nice recommendation and cultivate your ability to use a copy machine, but hitting the streets in a new city in a slightly less “safe” environment will provide you with a much more compelling and valuable experience.

The abilities that are most crucial for success are not learned in a classroom or an office. While those environments are ideal for cultivating specific skills, they do not effectively teach someone how to problem solve under pressure, how to lead, how to sell, how to network. Those are real-life skills that must be learned in a trial-by-fire environment. While it would be too extreme to state that no one who has gone the traditional path has managed to master those skills, I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten, these abilities weren’t developed working in a corporate file room during a traditional internship.

There are a multitude of opportunities out there. They can be a bit off-the-wall, like interning for start-up companies or jumping on board with a company that has no set program for interns, or they can be totally out of the box, like starting your own small-scale business for the summer. The path we’ve all been taught to take isn’t the only one, nor is it necessarily the best one. Pursuing unconventional options will not only provide a different type of experience, one that you will benefit from later on in life, but you  will also have a hell of a lot better stories to tell come fall.


Meghan Kiesel ’13 is a Chinese major from Excelsior, Minn. She is currently studying abroad in Beijing, China. 

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