How can students make the most of a coronavirus summer?

As COVID-19’s effects were rippling globally last spring, student internships were among the dominoes that started to thud — significantly shortened or in some cases entirely canceled. 

As the Undergraduate Chair of the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Pennsylvania, my calendar was filled with Zoom meetings with students who wanted to see if I could help. As a former McKinsey partner, I have many corporate connections and they wanted to know if I could introduce them to my network as they scrambled for new opportunities. 

I started to make calls on their behalf, but it was clear that many companies had other issues to worry about: how to stay afloat and not furlough existing employees. We were no longer in Kansas and students needed a new perspective about the summer.

New summer strategies for students

So what are your options if you are now sheltered-in-place with your parents and annoying siblings in a scenario that none of you had ever imagined? Here are a few:

Take online summer classes. Most universities and community colleges offer summer courses, so this could be the time to take some classes that you don’t have the opportunity to take during the semester or to enroll in a class that you know will be hard for you. If quantum physics isn’t your thing (my hand is raised very high right now), it might be helpful to take it during the summer when you have only one class to focus on. If you don’t have the financial means to take a university course, there are less expensive options like Udemy. For example, if you wanted to learn coding, Udemy provides boot camps that you can take for less than $100 and 50+ hours of instruction.

Student taking online college course in Austintown, Ohio on May 8, 2020.
Student taking online college course in Austintown, Ohio on May 8, 2020.

Pick up a new hobby. This is the perfect time to do something you’ve never done before. Have you always wanted to become an incredible baker? Now could be the time to try. If you are serious about it, start to document it and make a YouTube channel, blog or even a recipe book. With just your cellphone, you can take gorgeous pictures with filters. There are also all kinds of videos on Pinterest and YouTube on any hobby you can think of. In a quick Google search, I found videos on basket weaving, 3D carved cakes, photography and calligraphy. 

Find some friends and develop your own venture. Take a look around you. What problems do you see? Can you form a team, hustle and try to solve one of them? For example, can you create an entire web of local restaurants to deliver free food to our frontline workers? Are there elementary and middle-school kids stuck at home with no prospect of summer camp? What can you do to entertain or enrich their lives in an online environment? Is there a game that you invented as a kid? Can you turn it into an app or build it into a product that you launch on Kickstarter? Are there ways you can help the arts or other nonprofits that may need to re-examine how they engage with youth? Invest your energy in developing something that will benefit those around you. 

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I am most excited about this last option for you because you will build real-world chutzpah in the process. Traditional college classes do not explicitly teach real world skills and GPAs do not measure them either. Skills such as teamwork, communication, self-reflection, tackling an unstructured problem and creating meaningful networks are not part of most college class rubrics. A canceled internship can actually give you the entire summer to develop these skills, and there’s no better way than trying to build your own venture.

I know you lost an internship, or some other plan you were counting on, but I promise you can have a productive summer without it. An internship is not risky. You would have been given a very well-defined project with lots of support to make sure that you can deliver something meaningfully. There’s fun social programming and a cohort of other summer interns to interact with. There is no doubt that during your internship you would have learned a lot — and perhaps gotten paid — but it is a well-structured opportunity created by someone else.  

Tool for success

So to all those undergraduates whose internships have been canceled: You’ve been given a gift to actually take a break from the books, from someone giving you structure and telling you what to do. Now you must actually try to create something from nothing.   This is daunting, much harder and riskier, which is why most college students apply for internships. They are a known thing that everyone does. And that’s why canceled internships are blessing. You now have the permission to do something risky because the so-called safe path is no longer an option. 

If this seems daunting, it’s because it is. But I promise you, it will be one of the most rewarding things you ever will do. To inspire and support you, my friends and I built something from nothing, just for you. It is a free accelerator to college students and recent graduates whose internships or jobs have been canceled. We named it Kinetic Creators, since we want to inspire you to use your energy to create something. We will support you in building your venture.  

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You will find people who, like you, want to set their potential into motion. You’ll meet new people, including students from all across the world — Mauritius, Saudi Arabia, China — and get a chance to interact with incredible founders and executives, people you would never normally cross paths with, like the co-founder of Apple Music Group, the chief growth officer for Kellogg’s, or the CEO and founder of Saxbys Coffee. We will help you as you take those first steps to use your energy to create something that doesn’t exist today, be it a social venture, a card game or an app to solve child care issues. It doesn’t matter what it is, what matters is that you are excited about it!

Whatever it is you decide to do this summer, remember, there are always silver linings everywhere, if you are open to the possibilities. So don’t wallow about your lost internship or job, or how unfair it is (I’m sorry but the world is really unfair). Instead, channel that energy into developing yourself in an unexpected way. You may not realize it now but what matters is the journey and not the destination. 

Vanessa Z. Chan is an entrepreneur, an investor, an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a parent in a dual-career family. Follow her on Twitter: @vanessaZchan

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Students need new strategies to make the most of a coronavirus summer

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