I spent the summer after senior year of high school on my back porch, reading way too many detective novels and getting embarrassing tan lines that would last all the way through my first semester of college. Having just expended the effort to actually graduate high school and get into Swarthmore, I became a sluggish bookworm, interested mostly in brewing the perfect cup of iced tea and getting through my reading list. I committed myself fully to this activity, probably because I was convinced that it would be my last summer of freedom before the onset of college and internships and jobs and, you know, adult life (whatever that entailed). The summer had to be the most awesome one ever, because never again would I be free! But I’ve gotta say, though I’ve certainly hit the stage of college and internships and adulting (I’m working on it), I was really wrong about that being my one chance at an awesome summer. Because this coming summer, thanks to grants and awards from Swarthmore, I’m embarking on an adventure: First, I get to take a road trip around California to do research for my novel, then I’m off to London to study Shakespearean performance at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. And it’s all definitely, definitely more exciting than reading Raymond Chandler on my back porch.
So how exactly did I get funding to go off on this wild summer? Well, Swarthmore grants funding to students to support summer research, internships, and travel, depending on a variety of factors, but mostly on the merit of the undertaking. You can get funded through specific grants that correlate to the academic divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering), through the Lang Center, or through awards from your department. You apply in February stating your intended summer plan and how it supports your course of study. It’s a little complex as forms go, but it’s available to everyone. Even though I had to ask a few questions to figure out the finer points of all of the attachments required since I’m a bit of a Luddite, I came out the other end with the maximum funding that the College can grant for summer research.
If you’re wondering what the magic words in my funding proposal were, I don’t know. But I said something a little like this: I want to go study at LAMDA because as both an English major and an active actor, I’m fascinated by the intersection of historical texts and modern performance. My honors program emphasizes Renaissance drama; I’ve been part of the campus Shakespeare troupe, The Yellow Stocking Players, since freshman year; and I still don’t feel like I’ve learned to successfully negotiate the gap between the classroom and the stage. (When we perform Shakespeare, our priorities are so different from when we dissect it in a classroom.) By training at LAMDA in classical Shakespearean performance, I hope to get a little closer to the vibrancy of the text in motion, because I think this understanding will help me as both an actor and an academic. What I didn’t mention was the fact that I was so London-obsessed when I was younger that I requested a London guidebook for Christmas when I was 12 and subsequently buried my nose in it before each algebra test in order to quell my nerves. It was basically the middle school equivalent of a safety blanket (which I think was smart of me, as middle school is WAY more terrifying than being a toddler…we should all have carried real safety blankets to hide our angsty little faces in moments of woe). Somehow I thought this information might actually be more embarrassing than helpful re: getting funding. And then, you know, I decided to share it here on the internet, because why not.
Maybe around now you’re saying, “Alessandra, this is all very well and nice about your adolescent woes, but what about the road trip?” Well, the road trip is all thanks to the English department. Each year, the department grants the Potter-Morrell summer stipend to a fiction writer and a poetry writer of exceptional promise to support their summer work. I received the fiction award on the basis of the beginning of my novel, which will eventually be part of my Honors Program studies. I’m only a little ways in, but it’s rooted in the cultural mythologies of California, the queering of the Odyssey, and the literary legacy of the Beats. Though I can’t accept the full financial support of the stipend because there’s a cap on the total funding I can take from the College over the summer, I still am going to be able to take a road trip to do location research. Though I grew up in the Bay Area and know home pretty well, L.A. is a total mystery to me. Which makes sense, because I’ve spent a total of three hours there. So I’m going to visit L.A., drive up to Sacramento, hike in Marin, hang out in Big Sur, and take a tour of Hearst Castle. I’m finally going to know my state, and I can’t wait to hit the road. I’ve already started enlisting old friends to drag along with me as I explore the coast.
I’m pretty much in total awe of the two opportunities I’ve been afforded this summer. Though my last summer was pretty amazing—I got to train with the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company and intern with Tupelo Press in North Adams, Mass.—the summer after my freshman year was everything that my cynical high-school self predicted. It’s hard to get internships after freshman year, and I also hadn’t yet figured out that Swat Career Services is AMAZING and will teach you how to make a resume which will kick butt. I was, in fact, so proud of my resume when I finished formatting it sophomore year in the wee hours of the morning that I saved it under the name “Boss A** Resume”—a name which I regrettably neglected to change before I sent it back to Career Services for review. Thank God that in addition to being excellent at their jobs, they also have a great sense of humor, and merely suggested I change the name of the file before sending it out with my applications. Anyhow, before I was savvy to the whole awesomeness of Career Services, I went home for the summer to find a retail job. I probably hit up every bookstore in the lower Bay before finally getting work at a small used bookstore in Mountain View, where I ended up shelving the very same sort of detective novels I’d read just a summer before.
When I look back on that summer, it’s with a certain fondness, though at the time I felt like a total failure. I had friends off doing research at Harvard, working with social services in New York City, and at fancy internships with think tanks. And there I was, scraping the gunk off used books so we could resell them. (Tip: Lighter fluid and a razor blade are really efficient and you feel like you’re a dangerous book wizard. Also, wear gloves because lighter fluid.) But I worked a lot of hours and was able to make enough money scraping gunk, shelving, and wrangling the nearly antique cash register into obedience that I was able to support myself when I took an unpaid internship with Tupelo Press last summer and dipped my foot into the publishing world. And, as a writer, the experience has provided me with a wealth of amazing material: There was the couple who started a shouting match in the register line only to blame it on the moon cycle, the artist who asked me if I’d be interested in doing some nude modeling for him as I tried to finish ringing him up, the 20 or so neighborhood dogs who visited with such regularity I then knew each of their names…
With the aid of Career Services and the support of summer funding, I will be free from having to de-gunk books for two summers now. But each of these summers has had a purpose, even when I was shelving books for hours on end. Summers aren’t just about building your resume, or looking impressive—they’re for exploring your potential: what you could do, what you want to do. You learn both what you love, and what you, in practice, aren’t actually excited to do for the rest of your life. Because there is value to learning what you are capable of when you step out of the classroom, and you will surprise yourself. You will learn that you are strong enough to shelve hardbacks for hours on end, you will learn you are brave enough to explore the world on your own, and you may even find the thing that you just have to keep doing for the rest of your life. You will move into apartments in strange cities and cook all your meals to save money and play at being a real adult. The experience of the Swarthmore classroom is transformative, but perhaps just as important is the Swarthmore summer: those months in which we take our knowledge out into the world, run towards the horizon, and dip our toes into the possibilities of the future.