The death of summer

summerfrenzy_Tina Pai
Tina Pai/Staff

Sunny days, ice cream cones and a chance to finally relax. With three months of freedom ahead of us, we long to make up for all the missed hours of sleep, to spend days enveloped in the sweet and salty aura of the beach, to travel, to have adventures.

Summer. It’s the best time of the year. Anticipated by countdowns on our calendars, summer months mean midnight drives and cotton-candy-colored sunsets.

Yet for many UC Berkeley students, the summer we once visualized and yearned for is now substituted with long hours of research, classes or intensive projects. It’s no secret that the UC Berkeley summer isn’t about sunshine and kicking back — it’s a time for students to work full-time jobs and internships that feed into potential careers. The hype of summer is there, as are the longer days and warmer weather, but when the school year ends and UC Berkeley students sign up for more and more commitments, our carefree summers begin to look a whole lot like the school year. In some sense, where did real summer go?

According to a Slate article titled “Do Kids Need a Summer Vacation?,” in the early 19th century United States, the school year consisted of five or six months split mainly between the summer and winter. In the 20th century, however, public officials and reformers took the initiative to lengthen the academic year, thus creating a break from school in the summer months. But in today’s hypercompetitive academic and professional environments, this time is hardly a change of pace from the school year.

This new version of “summer” is so ingrained in our culture that, as students, we hardly stop to ask why we’re jam-packing our free time with activities in the first place. In high school, each summer presents a looming challenge: How do I impress college admissions? What will make me stand out? Once we actually get in, the burden of summer doesn’t disappear — it just morphs. We worry about impressing graduate schools, future employers, even our fellow classmates. In comparison, the school year begins to look like a relief.

I spoke to 20 UC Berkeley students about how they made use of this past summer, hardly expecting that any of them would have dared to spend the summer lounging on the couch or daydreaming. I was pretty near correct: 16 replied that they had taken part in an internship, had a job or took summer classes. Only four traveled or took the time to relax. On both sides, students pondered why their summer had mattered and if they had even stopped to question it. For some, summer was just a natural extension of the school year.

A productive summer is no sin. Many students need to take advantage of the time away from class to work and support themselves. Others genuinely want to feel productive. But the mentality behind the UC Berkeley summer can be far more troubling — a culture that often values prestigious positions and scorns experiences not directly focused on academic or professional development.

“It is really interesting how the tables have turned. When we were younger, we dreaded school, and summer was more fun,” said Faraz Fatemi, a UC Berkeley senior who interned as a product marketing manager in Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Division this summer. “Now summer is when we are doing real work, whereas the school year in Berkeley, with all our friends, is much more fun.”

I’ve experienced this tension myself. Now heading into my sophomore year at UC Berkeley, I am finding that I spend the school year devoting the majority of my time to maintaining my grades and doing well in my classes. I have little to no time to pursue the wide range of extracurriculars that might supplement my major, and the best way to fit everything in is to pursue new opportunities during the summer.

I did my best to maintain a healthy balance. Spending weekdays pinned in the lab doing research, I spent my nights and weekends tackling items on my bucket list. I came out of three busy months satisfied but not refreshed. I could tell my classmates that I was productive, I could add some things to my resume, but I couldn’t say that I had spent time contemplating the big questions outside my career goals or next semester’s schedule — questions about what makes me happiest or how I could change my approach to my second year at UC Berkeley.

Summer may not exist as it once was, and maybe it’s better that it doesn’t. But it can still live on as a state of mind — a space away from the hustle and bustle where we can take a breath and think about why we spend all of this time running from one obligation to the next. Instead of waiting for a summer that never really comes, we can embody it. That may be the best way to spend our summers after all.