I look forward to summer for many reasons — the beautiful weather, the new friendships and, of course, the great education. For me, and possibly for many others at Princeton and peer institutions, summer is that special third semester: the semester during which I actually end up learning the most.
This, naturally, may seem counterintuitive to most. “I thought the fall and spring semesters were when you learn the most,” some might think. “After all, that’s when you’re in school, isn’t it?” While this statement is undeniably true, we learn different things in different contexts. A great deal of what we learn in life lies beyond the classroom. Fortunately or unfortunately, “book smarts” like those we acquire during the regular semester form only a fraction of this knowledge. Traveling skills, administrative skills, language skills, cooking skills — there are skills which we cannot hone within the confines and with the time demands afforded by Princeton.
Mark Twain once joked that he has “never let his schooling interfere with his education,” something that I can appreciate. Whether we accept it or not, we spend a great deal of our time and energy satisfying the requirements of a 21st-century education. That means more time for essays, problem sets, exams and compulsory reading and less time for exploration and self-guidance. The change of pace which summer affords often allows for more time for us to direct our own education — something which it is difficult to do in a structured system like the University.
Sometimes a traditional college setting like Princeton’s isn’t the most conducive for fostering growth. We do most of our learning when adapting to new situations and challenges. Going to college naturally redefines one’s boundaries, but the gains become less pronounced as we get more comfortable. I think that most of us can agree that there’s less of a difference between your 16th and 17th paper that between your first and second one. Constantly pushing yourself by accepting new challenges and opportunities is critical to learning more about yourself and the world around you.
Summers at Princeton have an awesome tendency to put us in new places and situations. We have language programs everywhere from Paris to Beijing that allow students to witness other cultures and lifestyles, often for the first time. There are seminars and scholarships which can give a student’s time at Princeton an entirely new context. After each of the past two summers I’ve returned to New Jersey with a newfound appreciation for the collegiate lifestyle, something that it is so easy to take for granted.
By getting out and seeing more of the world, we learn more about how Princeton fits into the bigger picture. We learn that the four years we spend here are somehow different. The change of pace brought about by summer reminds us that we have been given the gift of studying whatever we want and using that to shape our futures in whatever ways we choose.
Indeed, it is this re-evaluation of what Princeton means that makes the summer so educational. It’s easy to lose perspective on the multifaceted nature of life when living in a bubble as complete and stable as Princeton’s. With classes and extracurriculars as our bread and butter, it’s tough to conceive that — for the vast majority of us — neither class nor extracurriculars will become our mainstays. Summer allows us to spend time pouring our energies into endeavors that aren’t coursework. New kinds of work can provide a sneak preview of what our lives could be like after graduation, something which I don’t think many students pay much mind to during their sojourn at the University.
Summer, more than any other time, is when we can contemplate what our lives would be like without school, something that warrants some thought.
As college students, we’re at an age where we are becoming the masters of our own destinies. With this growing freedom comes a growing need for initiative. But any initiative requires decision-making, and decision-making requires experience and education. The more we can expose ourselves to during our time at Princeton — a goal which the administration generously supports — the better we’ll be able to make informed decisions, take initiative and face the rest of our lives with the confidence that we made the right choice. Summer learning can and should be a huge part of that exposure.
So let’s finish up our papers, problem sets and exams and pack our bags, because the next — and arguably greater — part of our education is right around the corner.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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