As early as November of my freshman year, I remember hearing conversations around campus about summer plans. These conversations were not about the anticipation of vacation and relaxation, but rather the frantic and stressful search for the perfect summer opportunity to pad their resumes. It was safe to say that I was freaking out.
But this pressure motivated me to learn about my options, which ultimately allowed me to further explore my interests and participate in an incredibly rewarding research opportunity. After many meetings with my amazing academic advisers and career advisers at Career Services, I secured a position as a research assistant at a developmental neuroscience lab at UNC Chapel Hill.
This position consisted of nine consecutive weeks of unpaid, nine to five workdays, and the occasional shift on evenings and weekends. Sound draining? Yes, but I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work. But what was so enlightening about the experience was the fact that I actually enjoyed doing the work. I found something I was passionate about and I had the opportunity to engage with it every single day.
The first day was a blur—meeting everyone in the lab, getting familiar with the lab space, moving into my office (my own office!!!), and running around campus collecting my various parking permits and ID badges. After taking care of these logistical details, I hit the ground running.
At Princeton, academic research often felt extraordinarily low stakes. Even an argument with a strong motive could feel comfortably removed from the realities of my life. In the academy, we aim for empirical arguments, not personal ones. And though this presented challenges of its own, it was easy to forget how safe it feels to be merely an observer, the omniscient narrator to someone else’s story. Last semester, for instance, my research focused on medieval history and African-American poetry, two topics firmly removed from my day-to-day reality as a white person in the 21st century.
Most Princeton students are worried about similar things. We covet internships as gateways to jobs after graduation. We seldom forget that graduate and professional school applications loom. We see post-grad options as neatly divided among four categories: corporate careers, graduate/professional degrees, fellowships, and (for a few) nonprofit work.
After five semesters at Princeton, this mentality has rubbed off on me. But my time studying in New Zealand has changed the way I see my options after graduation.
Two weeks ago, during my Easter break, I embarked on the Milford Walk, arguably New Zealand’s most famous hike. My favorite part of the four-day, three-night walk was the people I met along the way — Their experiences expanded what I saw as possible post-Princeton pathways. I met recent graduates from the United States, Israel, France, and Australia who were working abroad. Two Vanderbilt graduates worked in the hotel industry in Queenstown. A young woman from Pennsylvania took time to pursue art while working in the North Island’s tourism industry. A group of men who had finished serving in the Israeli Defense Force took a break before resuming life at home. Many of them moved to New Zealand without a set plan and used this work-travel time as a respite from college and professional life, where they could start to realize what kinds of careers really excited them.