After a whirlwind semester of virtual classes, college students are now facing a new challenge: Companies around the country are canceling their internships. A fifth of those surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers are revoking internship offers.
One year ago, the changes we are seeing would have sent me, then a sophomore at Davidson College, into a panic. But this summer, I'm not worried. I’m ready.
That’s because I spent the last year learning how to navigate uncertainty. It started last summer, when I participated in Adjacent Academies, a new experiential learning program for college students that combines technical skills training with liberal arts. The experience helped me develop new skills that have transformed how I think about my personal and professional growth.
It also taught me that there is a limit to how much we can control the unknowns in life. Being comfortable with ambiguity is a trait that will help you build your own opportunities and rely on yourself, not just others, to shape your future. Even now, when it may seem like there are few relevant internship or research opportunities available, you can take control of your own path by thinking entrepreneurially.
If you are a student looking for new ways to continue along your trajectory during the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to share what I’ve learned with you. Students from any background can use these ambiguous times to do something beneficial. Here are my recommendations for how to spend your summer.
Seek Out Educated Conversations
The people you surround yourself with can have a significant impact on your personal and career growth. Be intentional and nurture relationships with motivated friends and professionals who support your goals but who are also constructively critical.
This investment has compounding effects, as the educated conversations that arise lead to stimulating thought that will better prepare you for interacting with industry experts, CEOs, engineers and anyone in between. I learned this last summer during 9-to-5 days that included not just coding instruction, but also interpersonal skill development, networking and touring startups, and meeting with founders, engineers and venture capitalists.
Through all these experiences, one that particularly resonated with me occured when we visited communications platform company Remind. We discussed the future of education and the importance of making digital interactions between students and teachers more “human,” a concept of utmost importance right now.
Face-to-face interactions might be hard given the current context, but social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter and Medium give you access to the thoughts of some of the best business leaders around the world. Taking the time to find these individuals, critically analyze and internalize what they write, and even reach out with thought-provoking questions will pay dividends.
Build Something You Care About
School is just the beginning. College enables us to network with alumni, learn the foundational principles of a challenging curriculum and talk with professors about the “big” picture. But what else can you do to open more opportunities, build meaningful relationships and become a better version of yourself? I used to struggle with this question a lot, until I realized the answer is clear: build.
If there is a personal project or business opportunity you’ve been interested in trying out, there’s no better time than the present to dive into something new and challenging, acquaint yourself with failure, pick yourself back up again, and build the muscle needed for high-growth, lifelong learning. Find that one thing that is meaningful to you and relentlessly chase the goals associated with it.
Personally, throughout the last semester, a goal of mine was to teach myself about different classification algorithms in machine learning. After reading extensively about the subject and talking with professors and mentors, I built a project outline, collected my own data, and built two classification models. I finalized this project a week ago and deployed it here.
Know What You Don’t Know
There is no faking it in the real world: You either know something or you don’t (and if you don’t, just ask!). I learned the value of this lesson during the first week of my program last summer, when we were thrown right away into a tough project and expected to use a wide range of new technology.
This experience quickly taught me lessons about the standards we should set for ourselves when faced with a tight deadline or a challenging topic to learn. I realized that accepting you don’t know something is the first step toward growth, which subsequently allows you to ask tough questions, evolve your existing beliefs and discover new ideas.
Once you realize what you need to learn, there are many ways to do so outside of the college classroom and beyond a formal internship or job: starting your own blog, learning to code, taking free or low-cost online courses on e-learning platforms, or trying out experiential education. The democratization of information through ‘web 2.0’ has created massive amounts of opportunity. Take advantage of it.
Lay A Foundation, Then Build Your Next Level
Fast forward one year, I have taken these lessons to heart. Upon returning to Davidson, I applied them to my curricular choices and let them guide me to additional resources and opportunities.
I began working with our on-campus data consulting firm at the college’s Hurt Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I sought out the challenging courses that would advance my skills even further, like natural language processing, data structures, and linear algebra. I pushed outside my comfort level and taught workshops. I even traveled back to San Francisco to advise another Adjacent Academies cohort and gave a talk on digital skills and fostering a growth mindset.
As a result of the foundation I built last summer and school year, this summer I have been able to reach new levels of opportunities that match my interests in education technology, data science and entrepreneurship. I leveraged my networks and skills to set up consulting gigs and internship opportunities outside of school. These include helping to build stats and SQL courses on the Pathstream Data Learning Experience Design team; helping to build a consumer-facing cyber security product for DarkOwl; and working on new venture development at Wilbur Labs.
Of course, these experiences have had to adapt to the pandemic, too. While these opportunities are now all remote, I’ve learned to adjust and find comfort in creating a healthy work-from-home environment: a place where I can focus, work effectively and match the level of intensity I would’ve brought to an in-person experience. Even from home, I hope to build skills that span across several industries, grow as an entrepreneur and form professional relationships in San Francisco, where I plan to move after I graduate.
All of these opportunities I’ve cobbled together have roots in the lessons I shared above and the skills and mindsets I practiced this year. If you’re a student struggling to find options right now, I hope these examples help you design your own productive summer in new ways, and that the entrepreneurial work you embark on now will prepare you to climb to new levels of opportunity in the coming months.
The current crisis is difficult, but for students who seek smart conversations about new ideas, build passion projects, fill gaps in their knowledge, and apply what they learn both in school and outside of it, this period may also offer chances to prepare for the future, uncertain as it may be.