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Commentary : Are Those ‘Meaningful’ Summer Jobs for College Students Really Important?

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In the front yard, I passed two gardeners trimming the lawn and weeding the flower beds. Inside, the maid was vacuuming the front hallway. Through the sliding doors, I viewed the pool maintenance man pouring chemicals into the pool. At 10:30, my friend’s son, who was home from college, emerged from his sleep and stumbled into the family room. He made himself a bowl of cereal and grabbed a diet soda from the refrigerator before proceeding to turn the television on to a game show.

“He’s been home from college for two weeks now, and he’s having trouble finding a summer job,” his mother explained over the din of the vacuum, lawn mower and television set.

I asked whether he had approached some of their household help to see if they needed extra workers during the summer months. I also mentioned the employment signs I had seen earlier in the day in a restaurant and a service station.

“Oh, that’s not what he’s looking for,” his mother responded. “He feels it’s essential to find meaningful summer employment.”

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Meaningful summer employment . . . it has a beautiful ring to it. Apparently, the new vogue is finding a summer job that augments your field of studies at college. Office positions with large attorney firms, financial institutions, medical laboratories and elected officials are most popular.

Those students lacking the proper channels must collect their limited credentials and, on their own, approach an already saturated professional marketplace. Ultimately, some students are forced to consider a job beneath their expectations, but only after it has become a question of need versus status. Consider the friend’s daughter who declined a position with a company that requires brown uniforms. She just couldn’t envision an entire summer clothed in a hue not on her color chart.

Like many college graduates, job selectivity was not a factor in my youth. Summer employment meant earning sufficient money to fund the next school year. Frequently, the jobs that produced the most capital were in the non-professional fields.

The summer after my freshman year in college, I was a substitute mail carrier for the Postal Service. It was a humbling experience. I recall having mastered an “A” on my Logic 101 final that spring, but experiencing tremendous problems sorting the mail each morning for my route. My legs ached every night from the endless porch steps I had to climb to reach the mailboxes on each house. To this day, the sound of a growling dog reminds me of the two wise-hounds on my route who lay in waiting for me each afternoon.

The summer I was 19, I ascertained that there is a distinct art to being a waitress or waiter. I am indebted to the wonderful individuals who graciously noted that I had turned my orders around and given the steak to the patron who had chosen the chicken. Other diners kindly overlooked the long-overdue soup that arrived with the entree. Now, I always ask myself whether the person serving me has to listen to a bellowing chef in the kitchen. Or, is he dealing with a salad lady like Gladys, who made beautiful salads, but only at her own meticulously slow pace.

The real test of endurance was driving the Good Humor truck. The hours were extremely long, the pay was one-quarter of your sales, and we were encouraged to push the more expensive bars and not load our trucks with the cheaper ones. Two days into the job, I realized that I did not have the heart to watch a penniless child stand amid a group of children eating chocolate-covered ice cream bars on a hot summer day in Detroit.

I am acquainted with physicians who spent summers during their education working in the sewers of New York or swirling hot tar to slurry on a roof or plowing acres of the family farm or selling newspapers at the downtown corner news rack. There is an IBM executive in the Midwest who learned his marketing expertise at the window of a Dairy Queen.

A teacher who was awarded a fellowship to study at Harvard this summer spent her vacations during college working in a non-air-conditioned canning factory in the San Joaquin Valley.

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While delivering mail, waitressing and selling Good Humor bars, I learned the dignity of work.

“All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work is alone noble,” an 18th-Century author wrote. In the course of funding a college education, I learned that some of the wisest individuals I would encounter in life would never have titles or degrees after their names. At the same time, I cultivated the essential tools of interacting with my fellow man.

Young Homer Macauley, the telegraph delivery boy in William Saroyan’s novel about life in a small town during World War II, summed up his feelings about his job: “How do I like it? I like it better than anything. You sure get to see a lot of different people. You sure get to go to a lot of different places. I’m going to be the best messenger this office ever had.”

What Homer learned as well as the attorney who swept litter, or the young medical student who drove the family combine, or the executive who made chocolate shakes, is that there is dignity and relevance to life in every job. With time, the meaningfulness of the experience weaves its thread into our life.

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