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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Do it with heart

With spring coming to a close and graduation just around the corner, it seems like just about everyone has finalized their summer plans. Maybe all of your friends are interning at the prestigious company of their dreams. Maybe your LinkedIn feed, like ours, has become a parade of joyous job and internship announcements. Maybe your family has asked you to pick up a job to help pay for tuition or room and board. Regardless of where the pressure comes from, finding a productive activity for the summer is a stressful process, and if you haven’t secured something yet, it can feel like you’ve been left behind.

We’re here to tell you: Don’t stress. There’s no one right way to spend your summer, but here are a few that you might consider.


Internships are the most conventional summer activity, and for good reason. Most openings run for the length of the summer and allow students to get experience in a potential career field. Internship opportunities often allow college students to network with professionals and other students in their potential line of work.

A majority of internships are paid, but the ones with the most perks are highly competitive. For business students, getting a placement at one of the “big four” firms (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC) is akin to getting into an Ivy League school. But even paid internships may require a student to relocate to a city with a highcost of living, which can eat into their summer profits. 

Unpaid internships offer the same opportunities, but often at a significant expense to the student. Students from low-income backgrounds may not be able to afford unpaid internships, even if they would otherwise be a perfect opportunity. Notre Dame has a grant program to assist students with their living expenses, but students still only break even.

According to Forbes Magazine, 60% of paid internships turn into job offers. Unpaid internships, however, only have a 37% return rate, which is almost as competitive as not having an internship at all. 

For Notre Dame students, these statistics about internship return rates aren’t necessarily true. Of the 155 graduates from the class of 2022 were hired at “big four” firms, only 34 of them had internships at these firms as juniors. You don’t necessarily need to land a competitive internship to land a competitive job post-graduation. Sometimes companies prioritize your graduation date over previous work experience.


Like an unpaid internship, service prioritizes gaining experience over earning money. Notre Dame students have many opportunities to volunteer over the summer, whether it’s here in South Bend, internationally, in their own hometowns or elsewhere. Volunteering can be a rewarding real-world experience that helps students build soft skills like project management and problem-solving. 

NDBridge is a volunteer program for rising sophomores through the Center for Social Concerns that covers travel, food and housing expenses and also provides a $2,500 stipend. It has national and international placements. The Robinson Community Learning Center is a local opportunity that partners with AmeriCorps to provide volunteers with living stipends. Other volunteer opportunities through the University can be found online.

Volunteer work is a good experience to put on a resume because employers are often interested in candidates who align with the company’s values. Plus, you get to give back to your community.


Especially for those in the sciences, finding opportunities revolving around research is a great way to have a formative summer experience. Whether you’re considering a specific program like a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) or are working under grant funding, finding opportunities in a lab can be rewarding and challenging. 

Many programs offer their participants decent funding, as well as other benefits like a housing stipend and transportation. Within the program, it is common for networking events and career-development workshops to be offered.

Grants are another option for pursuing a summer research opportunity. Typically, you must already be working in or have an agreement to work with a particular lab. If you have a predetermined project you’re passionate about, doing research like this is often a great choice.

While these are great options to pursue, they are not without their drawbacks. Research demands an extensive amount of time and energy to pursue. Applications are quite competitive — applying to 15 or even 20 different programs might yield a single acceptance. Once you’ve accepted something, developing hypotheses, scouring relevant literature and creating experiments can take a toll on even the most dedicated of researchers. You might also find yourself in a liminal space between structure and freedom: You have the world at your fingertips, but you can only adhere to certain concepts or technologies. Producing significant results is daunting, and there is pressure to impress. 

Entry-level work

If you can’t find something specific to pursue, there’s also the possibility of entry-level work. In a competitive environment like Notre Dame, you might feel pressured to avoid this option, but there is truly no shame in working. 

With entry-level work like food service, retail, babysitting or manual labor, you can find openings pretty much anywhere. Applying to a job may not guarantee you a position depending on seasonal availability, but it’s surely a much less competitive route to making money. This work doesn’t require the most technical knowledge, but it’s important for developing soft skills and learning how to work with people. Plus, they can be translated into future careers and into everyday life. 

Long hours in these positions, however, might put you at risk for burnout — especially after spending several months in school. These long hours also might not translate into good pay, as many of these entry-level positions can only offer minimum wage. They’re not optimal if you’re looking to pursue something major-related, but they have benefits nonetheless. 


Some students choose to study abroad during the summer. Others choose to travel with their families. If you have the extra funds to travel anywhere — domestically or internationally — appreciate it as much as you can. Learn something about the place you are visiting. Engage with the local culture. Do something that’s out of your comfort zone. 

Vacation is a good remedy for educational burnout, but it can also help you develop your career. Travel can help you connect with a potential employer, make you more adaptable and develop your communication skills.

Building identity capital 

Between internships, service, research, work and travel, Notre Dame students have a lot of options to choose from. But no matter what you choose to do this summer, be determined to make it into a learning opportunity. 

If you’re stuck in an internship that isn’t a great fit or working at a job that doesn’t quite match your imagined future career, that’s OK. In the process, you’ll learn more about yourself, make some money or help others out. 

These summer experiences are how we can build and solidify our identities over time. According to clinical psychologist Meg Jay, this “identity capital” is a way for us to develop stronger networks and relationships and create happier lives. In her book, “The Defining Decade,” she writes, “identities and careers are made not out of college majors and GPAs but out of a couple of door opening pieces of identity capital.” 

So, make sure that wherever you’re doing, you have a smile on your face and joy in your heart. Try your best to build connections, make an impact and be a force for good in the world. And to the graduating class of 2023, it doesn’t matter what you do — as long as you do it with heart.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.