More than Just a Number: Stories of the Summer

On a typical weekday evening, Navdeep Maini '19 often sits by himself at Essie Mae's Snack Bar, wearing some headphones as he composes music or works on math assignments.

Maini is a Computer Science major, Music minor, and QuestBridge scholar from Somerville, MA. Occasionally, he can be found playing the piano in Parrish Parlors, or trying out a new tune on his guitar in a corner of Swarthmore College's lush campus.

In keeping with his apparent interest in music, Maini worked at a small guitar school over the past summer. "I wasn't paid, but the owner gave me free guitar lessons, so that part was nice," he said. After his two-week stint at the guitar school, Navdeep took on a paid position for eight weeks at a summer enrichment program for children from low-income communities.

Like Maini, many other college students workand hustle hardduring the summer. They are frequently found among the ranks of interns, research assistants, restaurant servers, or retail workers. Some students are paid but some are not; some are low-income, while others hail from wealthier families; some rely on the classifieds to find jobs, whereas others tap into their extensive connections.  

Most students face similar issues in searching for summer opportunities, from not knowing where to start to encountering numerous rejections. Financial concerns, however, are especially pertinent for low-income students who may not have sufficient resources of their own to tide them through the summer.

"As a low-income student, you can't really go through summer without getting paid. You can't really take on volunteer positions," Elizabeth Stant '19 said. A low-income, first generation student herself, Stant is well-aware of the challenges that summer poses for students like her. In her freshman summer, her family ran into financial difficulties, so Stant returned home to Dover, DE to work at Fifer Orchards, about a 15-minute drive away.

"I hated working at home [for Fifer Orchards], and I never wanted to do it again. They put me in a leadership position as a produce specialist in charge of quality control and the orders that they sent to local restaurants, Walmart, and huge grocery stores. I worked 13-hour days," Stant recalled.

"Working at home was a burden for me. I can't generalize my situation to other low-income students, but while living at home, I used my funds for things like buying groceries and paying for gas money because my parents were struggling," she added.

Some low-income students like Stant work over the summer out of necessity, maybe because their family is going through tough times or because they need to save up for graduate school. Their peers who are not low-income have comparatively more freedom to take on summer jobs out of interest or other personal reasons. Susanna McGrew '20 also did some farm work over her freshman summer, but unlike Stant, she was not motivated by financial hardship.

"I worked at Rock Creek Park Horse Center in Washington, DC. I mainly had three jobs. I mopped the stalls early in the morning and taught horseback riding to some four to eight year-olds. I was also a trail guide and took people on horseback rides in the woods," McGrew said. Since she took lessons at the Horse Center when she was younger and also helped out in their summer camps, she was readily offered a job again.

"I knew that I wanted do something physical because I like doing physical work outdoors. There's more pressure over the subsequent summers to do something career-oriented and it will probably be in an office, not outside, so I wanted to do it while I can. I really did love working there," she smiled. "I'd like to think that spending hours and hours shoveling manure was part of character-building."

Besides her interest in the job, McGrew also decided to work in summer to receive some extra money. The financial pressure on her, however, appears lighter than that on low-income students as she did not have to worry about covering immediate, everyday expenses. "I wanted to make some money over the summer because my parents are already paying for my tuition, so I don't want them to be paying for my pocket money too. I wanted to have some money to spend as I wish, and save up in preparation for my future after graduation," she said.

Besides working different summer jobs, students can also pursue summer internships. Unpaid internships, however, may not be viable for students who struggle without a steady source of income in summer. Isaac Kleisle-Murphy '20 was an exception; he interned for no pay at the US Attorney's Office in Seattle, WA, over the past summer. "I wasn't paid, but I was reimbursed for travel and they bought me a lot of food," he chuckled.

Still, Kleisle-Murphy acknowledged that he could not have accepted just any unpaid internship, even if he does not identify as a low-income or first-generation college student. "If it was in a different city, I might need to apply for a summer grant from the Lang Center, but my parents live two minutes away from downtown Seattle so that wasn't too bad," he said. Swarthmore's Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility awards grants of up to $4500 if students are involved in meaningful research, community projects, or internships over the summer.

Kleisle-Murphy also coached lacrosse at Cityside Lax almost every evening to earn some pocket money. "I got up around 3 to 4.30am every morning, reached the office at around 6.30 to 7am, then left work around 5 or 6pm in the evening to go coach lacrosse," he described his busy summer schedule.

With unpaid internships cordoned off as an impracticable option, low-income students may feel that they have limited opportunities to spend their summer productively. Swarthmore, however, offers several on-campus resources. Karen Henry '87, Dean of First Year Students and Director of First Generation and Low Income Student Initiatives, described various ways that students can seek help for finding something to do in summer.

"In the fall, we have the Summer Opportunities Fair and everyone who offers summer funding comes to the Fair. We meet students, talk to them, and explain our resources. People also do their own smaller events. For example, my first-in-family interns worked with the Lang Center to host an event for low-income and first-generation students," Henry said. "There were 30 to 40 students who attended that event," she added.

Henry also advises students to remain proactive in seeking support from the school community. "Swatties love Swatties, so talk to alumni about opportunities. That's really helpful because a lot of alumni offer opportunities. It's useful to go to Career Services and know how to use the Alumni Directory. Students can also talk to people around them, like faculty and staff. Getting to know the folks in various offices can really be helpful," she said.

Some low-income students find it particularly helpful to connect with their professors when they are searching for summer opportunities. In particular, professors can offer students a summer research position or provide crucial information and advice.

This summer, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Edwin Mayorga worked with a few students to conduct a research project on mental health and education access in Philadelphia's Latinx high school population. One of his researchers was Roberto Jimenez Vargas '18, a Psychology and Educational Studies major. Vargas is a low-income and first generation college student from Norwalk, CT.

"I found out about this research opportunity through Edwin himself by taking his class in Ethnic Studies and Education last spring. He asked me to be one of his researchers," Vargas said. To fund his summer research, Vargas applied for and received a grant for Engaged Scholarship from the Lang Center.

Vargas' experience reveals that building good relationships with professors is important in opening doors to diverse opportunities. When asked about why he decided to do research with Mayorga, Vargas responded, "One big aspect of it was our personal connection. We clicked really well together and his class was great. Edwin was not only a great professor, but he also mentored me. He was my unofficial mentor. I enjoyed his class so I knew I would enjoy the research."

Mayorga, himself a first generation college student from a low-income neighborhood in California, remains closely engaged with students who share his background. Ever since he started working at Swarthmore four years ago, he has been a mentor to one Richard Rubin scholar every year. "I have also supported other students through the Lang Center or through the faculty-student relationship. A good number of students I work with have been low-income or first generation," Mayorga said.

Besides research positions, professors can also offer students valuable support and guidance in searching for or applying to summer opportunities outside school. Azucena Lucatero '16, a Biology and Asian Studies major, is grateful to Professor of Biology Elizabeth Vallen for helping her with her applications to the Research Experiences for Undergraduates [REU] program. REUs, organized by the National Science Foundation, involve ten weeks of paid summer research in the sciences with a mentor who is usually stationed at a university or college.

"It was very competitive to get the REUs and it takes a lot of effort and foresight to apply for them. The applications were due in December or January. So on my own, if I haven't had people like Liz [Vallen] and my friends pushing me, and those who knew more about what had to be done and how to apply, I think I would have had a much harder time," Lucatero reflected.

"In my freshman year, I didn't really know what I was doing and didn't have any plans. I was feeling a little iffy about biology because Intro to Bio was rough. I talked to Liz and she encouraged me to work at REUs or other summer research programs, so I looked into those. I felt like I was feeling around in the dark because I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I ended up getting into the REU at UMich [the University of Michigan] and that set me down the path to research and academia," she said.

Connecting with professors can be particularly crucial for low-income students whose parents may be less well-connected than those of their peers. Michelle Kim '20, a QuestBridge scholar and prospective Engineering major from Fair Lawn, NJ, shared her concerns about looking for upcoming summer opportunities.

"My dad is very interested in my applications and internships but he didn't have any connections. It was all really on my own. My friends and I would share internships with each other and I have to look online. It was really like sending out 15 applications and hearing back from one," Kim said.

Stant, too, felt that her parents were less involved in her summer job search than her friends' parents. After her sophomore year, she got into an REU for neuroscience research at the University of Vermont. Despite her success, she found the application process "very stressful."

"I applied to 13 REUs and got a lot of rejections. I only got into this one. I know a lot of people had parents helping them out, like finding opportunities and pushing them to apply, but my parents had no idea what I was doing. I know some of my close friends were complaining, like 'Oh my god, my parents won't get off my case about this internship application', but I think their parents were just being supportive," Stant said.

Although Swarthmore tries to foster a good support system for low-income students, more can be done to ease students' anxieties. Vargas suggested organizing "writing sessions to help low income students with essays and cover letters." While Career Services is often open for students to drop in and seek help, perhaps specific sessions tailored for low-income students might offer a more encouraging environment for these students to come together.

Mayorga suggested taking a more coordinated, college-wide approach to helping low-income students with their professional development. "We can help students in transitioning out of college to other social paths they are taking, by doing more with Career Services and connecting that with other resources, like the Women's Resource Center or Black Cultural Center," he said.

"The Lang Center does a lot and part of the Rubin program is offering funding for students to have those [professional] experiences, but those programs don't reach every student in need. So we need the college as a whole, rather than individual programs, to make a clear assessment of students' needs."