Should our summers be about something more than likes on a newsfeed?Anna Jennings

One of the best parts of being a university student is undoubtedly the summer break - it’s twice as long as ever before in our academic careers, and there seem to be almost limitless possibilities for a great summer experience. Facebook fills up with vacation photos, both aspirational and thoroughly cringe-worthy, and on the return to Cambridge the conversation descends all too quickly into ‘hilarious’ holiday stories, most of which lose their lustre after the end of Fresher’s Week.

It seems clear that there’s a lot of pressure to have a ‘great’ summer, though, whether that be a prestigious internship or a trip halfway around the globe. Is it really that important to make your summer holiday instagrammable, with a selection of amusing anecdotes? I would have to say that it’s not.

This isn’t (just) a complaint about the irritating crap that fills my newsfeed from the start of July onwards for a solid two months, it’s a question as to what and why our priorities for the summer really are. The simple answer is that this really does depend on your aspirations and current position. For example, there’s less pressure on first-year students to get an internship as they have more time before graduating.

Likewise, certain career paths have very defined routes which students must take: engineering students, for instance, are required to complete eight weeks’ work experience before starting their third year. It’s also important to consider the cost of different experiences: for many students, it’s vital to have a source of income during the holidays as having a job in term time is strongly frowned upon.

So why do people take different options? The lure of foreign travel is clear: plenty spend a ‘gap yah’ finding themselves on South-East Asian beaches - and there’s nothing wrong with spending time away to recuperate after exam season, whether that be with friends or family. The other, longer-term forms travel can take are two-fold.

One of these is so-called ‘voluntourism’, a rather suspect kind of charity of which the less said, the better. The other is working abroad. This is naturally-beneficial for those studying language degrees, or for students with ambitions of working in a particular country in the future.

However, I have to question whether, teaching English as a foreign language, for example, is a good investment of time or money. Programmes such as these are generally cost-neutral at best, and frequently dependent on acquiring travel bursaries from colleges - for which there are limited funds available at most colleges, with discrepancies across the University. After completing such programmes, students are rewarded with a TEFL qualification and an ‘experience’ of a foreign nation. Both of these are ‘transferable skills’ with very limited use at best.

I don’t wish to overly criticise this sort of scheme. But while it’s often fun and satisfying, the benefits are basically the same as a holiday. The same can’t be said of unpaid (or poorly paid) internships. While the situation in the UK is significantly better than the US, bad-quality, low-pay internships are possibly the worst use of a summer break imaginable.

Research suggests that those with unpaid internships on their CV are only slightly more likely than those with no internships to get paid employment, lagging far behind those who have completed paid internships. In fact, there is substantial evidence that those with unpaid internships have a smaller starting salary than these other groups.

However, for some career paths – particularly in the third sector, for example – a significant proportion of internships are unpaid, with the expectation that bursaries are available. This can discourage less well-off applicants from applying for these kinds of internships, which is clearly damaging to both employer and prospective employees alike. Even in cases where employers cover travel costs, these systems seem to favour students from wealthier backgrounds. When the choice is between spending money (on top of student debt) to gain uncertain access to a competitive career path or to work a minimum-wage job in order to pay university living costs, it becomes an instinctive decision for many.

While most colleges do offer some financial support for unpaid internships - particularly degree or university-related programmes - there is simply not enough funding to go around. This makes a paid internship or summer job the only viable summer option for many students. A summer job is a great way to spend time, often with flexible working hours, as well as guaranteed minimum wage pay (at least). A paid internship, however, seems to be the only definite way in which careers, in addition to the bank account, can be enhanced over the summer.

Much has been said about paid internships. Reports of interns being forced to work unsociable hours or driven to the point of exhaustion are frequent, particularly in regard to the City. Poor-quality internships in which students learn the fine arts of coffee ordering are also far too often less than useful. However, in my view, the current system leaves few other options for career-conscious students.

While it’s perfectly possible to fill summer up with different experiences, we as students need to have a hard look at how we spend our time away from Cambridge. Opportunities flock to those at Cambridge - to some more than others perhaps - but giving ourselves the chance to take them is the most important part. This year, please do something better with your summer than filling up my newsfeed.

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