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Summer Freedom

Postcard from San Mateo, Calif.

By Lowell K. Chow

SAN MATEO, Calif.—“So, what are you doing this summer?”

I was first asked this question seated with a friend in the Eliot dining hall sometime after spring break, and I would be asked again countless times until I left Cambridge in early June.

“Um, I’m going home this summer,” I answered him then, the way I would every time someone else posed the same question.

The next few exchanges were just as predictable, as if scripted. “And where’s home?” “California.” “Oh really? Where in California?” “The Bay Area.” “Cool.” But of course, all I did was tell my friend where I was staying over the summer months, not what I would be doing. That was his next question.

“So what will you be doing?”

“Um. Nothing.”

You can probably see why I was so evasive; the fact of the matter was that, unlike many—or perhaps most—Harvard students, I had not planned to do anything substantial over the summer. This, for me, was slightly embarrassing.

Why? Here’s a quick survey of my friends’ plans for the summer:

One of my roommates is working for a Harvard chemistry professor here in Cambridge, performing sophisticated research, the comprehension of which completely escapes my scientifically-limited humanities brain.

My other roommate will be at Auburn University, doing advanced plasma research on a contraption called a Compact Toroidal Hybrid Reactor—also beyond my understanding.

I have friends going to Italy, to London, to Amsterdam. I have friends working for Let’s Go, for Summerbridge, for Harvard Student Agencies. I have friends in consulting and in i-banking.

Oh, and don’t forget the internships. From among my Crimson friends alone, there are people working for The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Daily News, CNBC, ABC News,, Google—the list goes on.

I could continue, but I think I’ve made my point. Harvard students are ambitious, driven and very, very motivated. Whether it’s to satisfy a financial aid requirement or to pad their resumes, to gain the necessary experience on the job market or simply to do what they love doing, my peers, for the most part, seem to be of the mindset that it’s not enough to work their butts off during the school year—they have to do the same during their vacation too.

So of course I felt a little bit sheepish when I told my friend in April that I would spend the majority of my time this summer sleeping in. And considering all the really cool things that everyone else seems to be doing, who wouldn’t?

Now, this isn’t to say that I won’t be doing anything this summer. I’ll be doing what I’ve done the past two summers—freelance as a photographer for a small local newspaper in the Bay Area, putting my camera, lenses and photojournalistic skill (honed from seemingly infinite hours spent at The Crimson) to use whenever my editor needs me, typically a few hours a week.

I know that this is not much compared with being a real intern at a major paper, where I’d be working as a virtual staff member. But to do so would have meant submitting an application as early as November for a job that begins in late June—and I have to admit that I do not seem to possess the capacity to look ahead that far into the future.

It was because of my respect—and slight envy—for those who do possess that capacity that I felt a little embarrassed of my own, less ambitious plans for June, July and August. I sometimes wished that I had taken the time in November to fill out that application, or over spring break to make that interview, so that I could join my friends in being able to say, “Yes, I have a job this summer.” And not just any job, but a real job, a 9-to-5, work-in-the-office, wow-won’t-this-look-impressive-on-my-resume job.

But now, comfortably settled down in this suburb of San Francisco, a few weeks and several thousand miles removed from the pressures and get-ahead attitude of Harvard, I’m beginning to believe that there are things just as valuable as landing that cushy research job or internship.

For one thing, this summer is my opportunity to improve my physical fitness. In high school, I ran cross country and track and field, grueling sports that demand top physical form. I confess that I’ve let that slip a bit while in Cambridge, where there is too much schoolwork and too few trails and rolling hills to entice me to go on daily 90-minute runs like I used to. Now the hills are once more in my backyard, so it’s time to lace up the shoes again.

I’ve also decided to make personal enrichment a big goal for this summer. I’m planning to learn (or at least begin the study of) the Latin language. I’m going to start preparing for the LSAT. And I’m finally going to master the computer language C++, even if it kills me.

Ambitious? Perhaps not. But suddenly what my mother told me a while ago begins to make sense:

“Enjoy and take advantage of your vacations while you can. You only get to be 20 once.”

So I’m not as ashamed of being jobless this summer anymore. It’s not the end of the world if you have nothing to do this summer. Just be sure to make the most of it.

Lowell K. Chow ’06, a history concentrator in Eliot House, is the photography chair of The Crimson. He estimates he will fully catch up on lost sleep sometime around the end of July.

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