Comment & Analysis
Apr 11, 2018

The Truth About Student Summers

Idealising the summer holidays is just a one-way ticket to disappointment, writes Alanna MacNamee.

Alanna MacNameeSenior Staff Writer
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

We’re finally within touching distance of the holidays. While there are some people for whom the exam season will drag out almost until June, for lots of others the halcyon days of summer are very much on the horizon.

Which brings a whole load of options and opportunities. I mean, how should you spend the greater part of four months without any of the real-life responsibilities of mortgages and motor tax, or even the semi real-life responsibilities of college presentations and The University Times deadlines? How do you spend the summer when you have lots of time and little to no money? There are pros and cons to all the ways you could potentially spend your summer, and how you choose to do so is probably dependent on you, your friends – and your funds.

The first option is the J1. The tried and tested student summer, I’ve wanted to go on a J1 ever since the age of 11 when a family friend, impossibly cool and stylish, returned from Myrtle Beach with fake Ray Bans and real blonde highlights. While I now understand that this was more due to winning the genetic lottery and less the inevitable result of a return plane ticket to the US, I have always considered the J1 as a kind of golden ticket to endless parties, sunshiny days that bleed into balmy nights and pockets stuffed with tips from Americans keen to support the young of their ancestral homeland.

It’s not unusual for today’s J1 student to come home early, tail between the legs, to hop back on the tills in the local SuperValu

That’s not always the case. Because while a J1 can mean fun in the sun stateside, it can also mean 17 people in one small house, working long hours for little compensation and American people who are tired of generations of Irish students getting drunk and acting recklessly. The J1 is horribly, prohibitively expensive. My dad talks nostalgically about students going on a J1 to earn enough money to pay for the following year’s college fees – nothing could be further from that today. Nowadays with an upfront cost of thousands before you even touch down and unscrupulous landlords out to scam Irish students unfamiliar with the minefield that is Craigslist, it’s not unusual for today’s J1 student to come home early, tail between the legs, to hop back on the tills in the local SuperValu.

But if the J1 is starting to look like the preserve of the middle classes, what does that make “travelling” in Southeast Asia? Southeast Asia is an incredible place: it has golden sands and breathtaking sunsets, amazing wildlife and all the culture you could possibly want. In between temple hopping, you can meet the most fascinating people in the region’s hostels, taste the most incredible kaleidoscope of flavours and dance ‘til dawn, your hand clutching a bottle of lukewarm local beer (whether you have a “transcendental experience” on something stronger depends on the country you’re in).

But this kind of backpacker travel has consequences beyond a new wardrobe of rather questionable harem pants. In fact, it can be pretty devastating. The town of Vang Vieng in Laos is one town that was ravaged by backpackers. The practice of “tubing” (going down the river in the inner tire of a tractor) not only destroyed the economy and local way of life, but killed a whole lot of revellers too. The damage is untold in a whole load of Southeast Asian countries. Not to mind that the people you will meet, whether they are from Paris or Patrickswell, are more than likely from a relatively affluent background.

It’s a summer experience that’s fun, and it’s one that’s worth doing – but it’s good to be aware while you’re there that you are living an unimaginable privilege (beyond even that of the J1), and to be mindful before you get incensed at local customs, such as the one banning menstruating women from Hindu temples, that you are on someone else’s patch.

It’s a summer experience that’s fun, and it’s one that’s worth doing – but it’s good to be aware while you’re there that you are living an unimaginable privilege

But what about those who don’t have a few grand to hand to put towards the summer experience? Or those who have either ambition in spades or a growing recognition and/or fear of the fact that they will soon have to leave the college bubble? One option is the internship route: a mini sell-out of your soul to one of the capital’s corporate giants in readiness for the big sell-out you will effect on graduation. Spending your days playing at your future career, upgrading your wardrobe to incorporate a few key pieces from Zara, maybe splashing out on some Kurt Geiger shoes. Working in an office full of glass and then having a few glasses of wine with your fellow interns after work. It can be soft work, sitting at a desk undisturbed by an overzealous supervisor or the rudeness of the general public – but it can also be mind-numbingly boring and it’s unlikely to do much for your tan.

But while the internship route might be an option for the law and business students among us, it is admittedly less accessible to some of the rest of us. It also requires staying in Dublin, and thus losing out on the potentially lucrative opportunity to sublet your grotty single room in Drumcondra to an unsuspecting tech professional newly arrived from Germany. So summer for many students means a rather less glamorous return home. It means enduring jibes about “Trinners” and questions about why you are studying English when it’s your first language. It means starting or resuming a job where for the princely sum of €9.55 an hour (the current minimum wage for “an experienced adult”) you can face the hostility, rudeness (and, in fairness, the occasionally life-affirming warmth) of the public. This kind of summer can be tough, but it can be great craic, and there’s the advantage of a washing machine that works and the food at home being of a markedly better quality.

It is worth remembering that summer is not just a golden opportunity, however. It can also be a black hole.

It is worth remembering that summer is not just a golden opportunity, however. It can also be a black hole. For someone used to structure and the college social life, to being with friends and likeminded people, someone accustomed to the excitement that university offers, three to four months of seemingly nothing can feel downright scary. Being off college can bring as many challenges as being at college: there’s all that time with family, and all that time with no clear goals or projects to aim for. It’s good to be aware of that and to plan something.

Even the most seemingly amazing summer plans have drawbacks, so skip torturing yourself over all those enviable Instagram feeds. Find what works for you, whether that’s trekking in Nepal, boosting your CV at EY or patiently explaining to tourists that yes, you know they’ve ordered Guinness. It might not be quite 500 days, but the long summer ahead is yours for the enjoying, or yours for the earning – or even both. Take advantage of it.

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