Growing up, summers consisted of going to the playground every evening, reading at my dining room table as my parents grilled barbecue chicken in the backyard, and playing with Legos in my living room while Good Luck Charlie played in the background. But summer has changed. College marks an end to our childhood, and our perceptions of summer shifted with it. Rather than being a season for leisure and family time, summer is now a period where productivity and building our resumes takes ultimate priority—internships, research opportunities, career preparation, academic obligations, financial responsibilities. Gone are the memories of relaxation and play, replaced with professional development and productivity.
But what exactly is a productive summer?
For Penn students, it often means an internship. Once you’re inside the “Penn Bubble,” your world starts to revolve more and more around a need for work and looking presentable to employers rather than developing individual passions. Any time spent for yourself is seen as a waste.
Extreme stress is placed on students to land a coveted internship, and not doing so exacerbates feelings of failure—failure to live up to the standards expected of us as Penn students. Scrolling through LinkedIn alone perpetuates this feeling as we constantly compare ourselves to our peers who rabidly post about their pre-professional summer plans. It’s easy to begin questioning our personal accomplishments and feel undeserving of past achievements in a comparison game with other high-achieving students who have “prestigious” internships—whatever that means.
Take Saanvi Agarwal (C ‘26), who spent this summer interning with an Australian-based consulting group through Penn’s Global Research and Internship Program (the infamous GRIP).
“Not having an internship at all would have definitely made me feel so worried because of personal comparisons,” Agarwal says. “A month before the school year ended, I was having a conversation with someone who called GRIP a ‘rip off,’ and I remember feeling almost ashamed that it wouldn’t look good on my resume.”
Internships are one way to overcome imposter syndrome and create a sense of validation. They provide career development opportunities, an extended network, and maybe even a return offer. But while internships can be a valuable learning experience, they are not a substitute for personal fulfillment.
Internship culture ties directly into hustle culture, as they both reinforce the idea that having a career and having time set aside for yourself are mutually exclusive. Interns are expected to prioritize their work over family, friends, and even themselves, like many of the corporate jobs that Penn students often hope to land after graduation. Regardless of how meaningless internship tasks are, they are viewed as more important than doing something meaningful for yourself. They might give students hands–on skills, but they also perpetuate a work–centric mentality.
Of course, not all internships are the same—but the ones that Penn students are typically encouraged to pursue require us to sacrifice the leisure time that once defined our summers. Instead, we must become the determined and ambition intern.
As the line between work and one's personal life becomes even more blurred, interns are expected to juggle multiple responsibilities and unconditionally sacrifice their time. Establishing boundaries to keep yourself sane becomes incredibly difficult. You also become caught in what feels like a limbo period: as a mere intern, you aren't yet a company member and don't rely on this gig for a living, but you're also expected to dedicate yourself like a full–time employee and push back on friendships, hobbies, and making summer memories.
The intern experience involves pursuing long hours in high–pressure environments while desperately trying to outperform our peers. We’re encouraged to add new accomplishments to our resumes rather than take some time to wind down. The Penn pressure to always be productive leads us to ignore our mental health and put all our efforts into finding the best position in the corporate world.
In order to validate our self–worth, we seek resume–boosting opportunities, choking a Word doc with stretched margins and size nine font full of consulting clubs, case competitions, research, and finally a Goldman Sachs Summer Analyst position, all in the hopes of feeling that we have done enough. This becomes anxiety–inducing to the point where students feel the need to make every moment of their lives productive or fixated around the corporate world.
College summers often feel like an unfair exchange. We sacrifice precious moments with family and friends—the bloom of our youth—only to fill out Excel sheets, take meeting notes, and grab coffee for executives. It feels unfulfilling, but these internships are supposed to be a step towards the supposed career of our dreams. So we tell ourselves that the sacrifices are worth it; that one day we, too, will be able to order an intern of our own to grab coffee. We trade our summer dreams in the hopes that we’ll end up with a dream job.
Coming to terms with this hard truth means learning to define success on our own. For some, an internship is still exactly that. But for others, success could mean going abroad or even having a summer free of having to work for others. Spending two hours to learn a new song on the guitar is probably far more fulfilling than spending two hours on a PowerPoint for a new project that won’t ever get off the ground.
Instead of focusing on external accomplishments and definitions of productivity, we need to create a more multifaceted definition of success. There’s no one–size–fits–all summer. We must self–reflect on our personal goals to create a truly authentic summer for ourselves.
Our Dream Summers
My dream summer is quite simple: A summer of healing. It would be a summer catching up on my ever–growing TBR list, a summer of nagging my sister, a summer of staying up until four a.m. only to sleep in until three. My dream summer has no rules. My dream summer is being back with my family in Korea: eating street food with my aunt, car–tripping around the countryside with my grandma, and feeling the sticky summer breeze as I explore Jongno–gu. It feels silly and weirdly nostalgic, because it is. My dream summer is a time travel back to my youth. When hanging out with your cousins was a priority on Google Calendar, when eating cheap pizza with your friends at a sleepover was the most riveting highlight of the weekend, when playing outside until sunset was a daily routine. My dream summer is taking myself back to those poignant moments of innocence and youthful bliss. But my dream summer is also a deliberate act for myself—doing things for myself because it makes me happy. A summer to grow, let go, and love. A summer love letter to me.
A dream summer for me would be a time for self–discovery and adventure. I would spend countless hours at a the Smithsonian Museum or deeply explore the walls of an art gallery with my friends. We'll talk about pieces from the past and present and explore the stories that shape us. I would go on picnics with my family as I lay on the cool blanket in the hot summer air with the aroma of food flowing around us. Later, I'd curl up in my room with my windows wide open as a refreshing breeze blows in while I read everything that I’ve been meaning to all year long. With each turn of a page, I’ll delve into a new world and get lost in the emotions and adventures these books have to offer. I would retreat to the warmth of my kitchen at night and bake chocolate chip cookies and blueberry muffins with my little brother as our house fills with laughter. My dream summer would leave me with hundreds of cherished memories with my family and friends that would later spontaneously pop up into my mind when least expected.
In an ideal world, I’m sure no one dreams of interning inside a corporate office for the usual eight to ten weeks—nine hours a day, five days a week—during the rare opportunity of the summer season. I know I wouldn’t—and why would I, when I have the chance to drive to the beach in three hours and cover myself and my younger brothers in sand castles and ice cream for the rest of the night? When I can go on late night drives with my friends, talking through the same types of mundane histories and stories that always become ten times more exciting at ten p.m. while sitting in the parking lot of our hometown's only Target. When I can stay up laughing with my grandma as she fries some syrupy hotteok, sprinkling some white sugar over the crispy pancakes while we disseminate another type of history, another type of story. To have this ability to continue creating intentional and unintentional joy—for myself and for these people I love—during the most beautiful season of the year should not be taken for granted.