How to begin/navigate finding meaningful summer experiences aka (internships/SURF/STEM incubator/research/etc.)

To be completely honest, I barely knew what an internship was before coming to Amherst. I spent my high school summers playing field hockey and making bracelets for my Etsy shop while binge-watching Netflix—and I have no regrets! But I arrived at college unaware of the steps needed in order to secure a meaningful summer experience and have the “productive summer” I felt I needed (spoiler: there is no single definition for what a productive summer looks like!). Well, 3 summers and 3+ years later, I managed to figure some things out. This is how I approached each summer in college in order to have meaningful experiences. Everyone’s path looks different, and I truly believe there is no right or wrong way to go about things, even if it feels like everyone else in your year, major, or career track is doing something that you’re not.

When I arrived at Amherst in Fall 2020, I had never written a cover letter before and my resume, which I made in a career exploration class in high school, lacked A LOT of detail and content. Over that winter break, I did a few key things: I used the Loeb Center’s online resources to revise my resume, I had my resume reviewed by a Peer Career Advisor, and I enrolled in the Charles Hamilton Houston Internship Program. At the time, there was a list of internships on Handshake that were designated as “Houston Program Internships” for program members only. One of these experiences especially piqued my interest: a caseworker role at Amherst Community Connections (ACC), a small housing-centered social services non-profit in the town of Amherst.

When the spring semester began, I applied to the ACC internship as well as SURF at Amherst to work in a psychology lab. I had intended to apply for more internships and research programs, but I was intimidated by all of the essays, cover letters, and recommendations that many of them required and figured I would wait to hear back from SURF and ACC before going through the motions of sending out more applications. Around mid-March, after completing an interview and mock casework exercise, I heard that I was chosen as one of the two interns for the Houston Summer Internship Program at ACC! However, the deadline to respond to the offer was just a few days, and I likely wouldn’t hear back from SURF for a few weeks. I requested and received an extension on the ACC offer, but there still wasn’t enough time to hear back from SURF. 

Ultimately, I ended up accepting the caseworker position at ACC and withdrawing my SURF application. The internship was something I was extremely excited and passionate about, and I was also worried that I might not get accepted to SURF and would be left with nothing. This was a tough decision, and I regret that my anxiety about being left with nothing to do that summer informed so much of my choice. I also ended up having to find and live in an off-campus apartment because the college still wasn’t allowing students completing off-campus internships to live on campus due to Covid—this process was extremely stressful and not something I had seriously considered when I first accepted the offer. However, I ultimately learned so much from my experience at ACC and even ended up returning to intern there as an office administrator for the spring 2022 semester. Also, I ended up loving my economics class that semester and decided to major in economics instead of psychology—and now I get to write an economics thesis that I’m super excited about. So I really do believe that everything happens for a reason!

During my sophomore year summer, I ideally wanted to conduct some sort of lab research since I had not yet had the opportunity to do so—I had reached out to a couple of Amherst biology labs in the spring semester but they were unfortunately not accepting new research assistants at the time. I ended up applying to SURF at Amherst again, but this time to work in a biology lab, after really enjoying my lab experiences in Bio 191 and Orgo I. My best friend from home goes to college at the University of Rochester and works in a neuroscience lab at the medical center there. After talking with my friend, I cold emailed her PI and asked if he would be willing to meet to discuss the possibility of having me as a research assistant that summer. I let him know that I would be able to provide my own funding, which I planned to secure through the Meiklejohn Fellows Program or the Houston Program. I met with the PI over Zoom, and he gladly agreed to support me working with him for 8 weeks that summer, assuming I could figure out my funding and housing. Soon after, I found out I was placed on the waitlist for SURF, pushing me to pursue the off-campus research opportunity, but I was also having issues figuring out a sublet in Rochester. A few days later, I was offered a SURF position in one of the biology labs on campus and decided to accept that offer because I would have room and board provided and would be able to continue research in the lab the following school year. I ended up having an amazing summer and am very glad I made the decision to stay in Amherst for another summer.

This past summer, I intended to study for and take the MCAT because I knew that it would be extremely difficult for me to be motivated enough (or have the time) to study during the fall semester. I was also worried about losing momentum if I took the MCAT after graduation since I can imagine myself being pretty burnt out after working a 9-5 job each day. I knew, however, that only studying for the MCAT all day every day wasn’t feasible for me, and I wouldn’t be making any money. I also knew it is common for rising seniors to spend the summer doing preliminary research for their thesis, so I saw this as a perfect opportunity to do something productive and get paid while still having time to study. Despite the looming stress of my August test date, being on campus was incredibly fun as several of my friends writing theses were also on campus doing research. We spent a lot of time playing games and enjoying being “at school” without all of the stressful parts. I was also able to continue the 3 off-campus volunteer experiences that I am involved with. I feel super fortunate that Amherst has such a great opportunity for students to get a stipend plus room and board to get a head start on their thesis. Definitely take advantage of this if you aren’t sure how you want to spend your summer!

I completely understand the stress of finding something to do each summer. I know it’s somewhat cliché, but I advocate for doing something that you’re passionate about and that will make you happy, rather than just something you feel like you “should” be doing. Of course, there is a lot of value in getting relevant work experience, but don’t let that make you think that the only productive thing you could be doing is at one particular company or even in one particular field. You’ve put in the work to make it this far—everything else will work itself out!

By Carla Mattaliano
Carla Mattaliano Peer Career Advisor