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Credit: Chase Sutton

For many rising seniors, the foreboding anxiety of securing summer employment began to loom far before they’d even chosen a major or discovered their career goals. Months-long stress of recruiting for lucrative positions, perfecting the 20th cover letter, and grappling with external pressures to land an internship can often feel akin to a subverted rite of passage for most of us. The idea that an impressive junior-summer internship is almost synonymous with a stamp of approval and security — a necessary stepping stone on the climb to acquiring a full-time position the next year — is among the most rampant I’ve experienced on Penn’s campus. 

Each one of us is bearing the weight of unique challenges and experiences amid the transition period to our now altered lifestyles. With the already surmounting pressure many rising seniors feel to start cementing a suitable foundation for their careers, rising anxieties about the dangers of the pandemic and the accompanying grim prospects for those soon to enter the workforce have increased the difficulty of future-planning — especially for those who were depending on employment to financially support themselves this summer. Work that takes place during summer months is crucial for many. Given this, and the reality of our new situation, we have an opportunity and obligation to confront the stigma that our summers are less fulfilling or productive without the “perfect” job.

In pre-quarantine days, the strenuous balancing act between schoolwork, extracurricular commitments, our personal lives, and the job search, was tempered by an all-consuming breath of relief for those who are successfully hired in the end. Like so many aspects of the college experience, students are frequently reminded that hard work and enduring stress will be offset by a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of academic, personal, or professional achievement. Over the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has left internships canceled, job offers postponed, and more than 36 million in the United States filing unemployment claims. Job prospects and the futures of numerous fields have been rendered uncertain seemingly overnight. Where does this leave rising seniors, as we approach the ends of our college careers?

I was sitting in a San Francisco park with a friend when I received the email notification confirming that the remainder of the spring semester would be moved online. After frantically messaging other friends and getting off of the phone with our parents, we must have sat there stunned for about 45 minutes — it wasn’t until I’d flown back to Philadelphia for a night a few days later to pack up my apartment that a distorted realization of the future really began to take shape in my mind. I, like many of my friends and acquaintances on campus, had spent the better part of my junior year researching, applying, and interviewing for job and internship positions — almost all of which have now been canceled. 

There is no precedent for this. No forum to use to anonymously seek advice written in the past about similar situations, or older friends to ask how they dealt with the roadblock when they’d experienced it. My immediate reaction was an instinctual vestige of the assumed wisdom I’d grown up hearing: work harder, just keep focusing on finding a great job, don’t give up until you get one. 

This insatiable drive for professional success and achievement hinged upon securing exclusive jobs or internships, especially during the summer after junior year, has certainly led students to positive results. But such a mindset was never conducive to every person, every career path, or every situation in the first place. Now more than ever, with the advent of our current reality, it’s clear that rising seniors will have to break from this traditional mold and begin to build a “new normal” from scratch.

With seemingly infinite time on my hands when I returned to my hometown of Durham, N.C., it felt impossible to not eventually face reflection on how to proceed. Almost every conversation I’d had with friends was weaved with the uncertainty and confusion centered around employment, but there is something deeper to it. Alongside anxiety about how to spend the summer without a traditional job or internship role, there is fear about COVID-19’s rising illness and death tolls and the potentially dangerous, undetermined path it will take us down in the coming months. 

Strangely, in the midst of constant news updates and overwhelming thoughts about what next year holds, I am starting to gain a small glimpse of perspective: the only thing that I, or any rising senior struggling to make sense of the future, have control over in this otherwise tumultuous time is ourselves. 

Attempting to predict the future and meticulously obsess over how I could “bounce back” next year if traditional summer employment was no longer an option is draining — and we shouldn’t be expected to have everything figured out. Maybe turning inward, to begin separating ourselves from the ingrained idea that getting the “perfect” job this summer is the only guarantee to post-graduation success, is how we can start to see that light at the end of the tunnel again. 

You’re still you without the job or the summer that you envisioned — still the person who enjoys the things you’re passionate about and has accomplished all that you have up to this point. It’s almost impossible to ignore the feeling that our lives have been stalled as we wait for a semblance of normalcy to reappear. But not everything has to remain on hold, and I think it’s important for us to remind ourselves that there are ways to push ourselves forward, personally and professionally, that don’t include the perfect title on our resumes. 

If nothing else, the beauty is in the realization that perhaps the one-for-all expectation we were used to up until this point was flawed to begin with: there should not be one singularly accepted path to, or definition of, professional success. Things constantly happen that we cannot predict, and the burden of departing from the professional timeline and expectations we’ve become so accustomed to at Penn should not have to fall so heavily on our shoulders. 

This summer, many members of the Class of 2021 will, one way or another, be re-writing the narrative. Perhaps the fact that most of our experiences will look drastically different from one another’s will set a new precedent for our younger peers — and hopefully the stigma of falling outside of the summer employment mold won’t be as hard on students in the coming years.

ISAMI MCCOWAN is a rising College senior from Durham, N.C. studying English with a concentration in Cinema Studies. Her email address is isami@sas.upenn.edu.  

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