Student sits flustered on the beach looking into a computer screen
Francie Ahrens/Daily

As June nears and the rest of America begins its summer, University of Michigan students grow restless with newfound seasonal freedom. They eventually are forced to ask themselves: what is the perfect college summer? We start with endless possibilities and potential. Yet while searching for such possibilities to pursue, we constantly compare ourselves to the media and define ourselves by unrealistic standards — media both on the silver screen and on our laptops.

We can find the dream college summer in classic films: the original MILF, Mrs. Robinson, seduces college student Benjamin, who falls in love with her gorgeous daughter; a graduating class of Texas teenagers throws a party with an iconic soundtrack; baby ballroom dances with Johnny.

In high school, I rewatched my favorite summer classics all spring, anticipating what I expected to be the “best summer yet.” I now realize I agonized and stressed over the picture-perfect three months of summer far more than I cherished the season, movies being the main cause. 

In attempting to summarize the summer film genre, Wall Street Journal media critic Terry Teachout finds that in each movie (from “Jaws” to “Do The Right Thing”), protagonists are taken “out of their humdrum lives” and put “in a place where they are free—or forced—to try something new.” As students, we place summer on a pedestal of individuality apart from our routine academic lives. Media of all types reinforces the “otherness” of the season, making “summer” a form of escapism. President Joe Biden, in a spring 2021 speech, called summer 2021 an “all-American summer that this country deserves after a long, long, dark winter.” 

Few of us felt that summer 2021 was redemption from a “long, long, dark winter.” This “all-American summer,” the one we see in the movies, is nearly impossible to achieve. 

While summer is a time of possibility, freedoms and unknowns, the lack of an official rigid schedule drives students to tirelessly seek the perfect structure for the months ahead. Movies, by actualizing the possibilities we imagine for summer, leave us even more anxious for the season and disappointed when ours cannot compare.

Once I got to the University, I watched the student body agonize over the perfect teen summer. Summer anxieties seem to overtake students as soon as winter term restlessness begins. Our young screen-glued eyes turn away from the silver screen playing “Mamma Mia” and “500 Days of Summer” and into the abysmal computer screen for inspiration. 

When searching the internet for “the summer during college,” pages of results advertise productive itineraries: learning new skills, interning and studying to build the perfect resume. We reduce our summers to a time of resume-building rather than a wild party or vacation. As we face nagging boredom and yearn for productivity, it is easy to turn to LinkedIn to fulfill our need to get ahead professionally. 

With nearly 20% of LinkedIn’s 828.1 million members being under the age of 24, as well as an increasingly digitized workplace, joining LinkedIn feels imperative to future career success. U-M students use LinkedIn to find summer opportunities and advertise themselves to connections through curriculum vitae, digitized resumes and “humble-brags.” On campus, discussions of Wall Street, Ivy League universities and Silicon Valley intermix with discussions of our everyday college worries of finals, essays and research projects. The constant, blaring discourse makes us feel that we have wasted our summer if we do not have real-world experience. A single LinkedIn post summarizes the perfect use of our free time and possibilities. 

As overachieving U-M students search for summer positions, our feeds and email notifications flood with “I am excited to announce that I will be joining …” The announcements seldom reveal the work (or lack thereof) the connection put into obtaining the position or the value they may find in the experience. They are merely a facade: an apotheosized vision of an out-of-reach summer. The “humble-brag” posts are another version of jealousy-inducing media like classic summer films.

We return to the LinkedIn app each day, attempting to discover and replicate the exact successes of our LinkedIn connections. With each notification of a connection’s success, we scroll for longer, see more announcements and grow more insecure, creating a vicious cycle of anxiety, self-comparison and an inevitable inferiority complex. Both our LinkedIn connections and favorite summer protagonists always appear more “productive” than us on the surface. 

Rachel Ienna, a 2022 LSA graduate and editor for student filmmaker organization Filmic, told The Michigan Daily that in summer movies “they’re never in a situation where (characters) are looking for someone to hang out with or looking for something to do (…) It’s a lot more scripted,” Ienna said. “Everything is set up so perfect.” 

We cannot see the exhaustion and boredom that plagues an ordinary summer in a post or a film. When we experience the natural summer burnout, we feel ashamed and inadequate. 

Whether scrolling LinkedIn or binging movies, I seek encouragement and end up with a sense of emptiness. Dr. Ethan Kross, a founding researcher at the University’s Emotion and Self Control Lab, told The Daily that “if you are constantly exposing yourself to glorified lives of others, you may never feel satisfied with your own life.” 

Kross calls this social scrolling and movie binging cycle a “rabbit hole” of “envy and doom.” Unconsciously falling into “the rabbit hole” hampers our ability to define what we want and how we act to serve ourselves. Kross named self-control “the ability to think, act or feel in a way that is consistent with your goals.” If we are conscious of our engagement with the media, we can free ourselves from the grasp of negative self-talk and focus on self-control. Then we can reach the “perfect” summer, a summer that Kross said is “not one size fits all.”

As we acknowledge the individuality that defines our summer, we may finally appreciate the season. Like any good summer film protagonist, we may find who we are and what we love along the way.

At the beginning of summer, Kross advises students to create a list of personal and achievable goals. If we define our goals, we can live for ourselves rather than attempting to replicate other college students’ idealized lives. As soon as we write the lists, we can throw them in the trash. Using self-control, we can uncover desires formerly buried under layers of media-derived expectations. Our vision of a summer day likely does not include a dance number or a faux-humble LinkedIn post.

Ienna, who admitted she views her life “through a camera,” captured a snapshot of every college summer day in One Second Everyday. She found that though everything in the movies appears “big and grandiose” (much like some of the stunning LinkedIn announcements), the best scenes are all about “the little things.” 

“There are movie-worthy moments in your own life,” Ienna said. “You just have to pay attention to them and appreciate them.”

Before we reach the summer, regardless of whether we throw a massive party or a family barbecue, if we work at the town pool or Goldman Sachs, I advocate we allow ourselves to enjoy summer for what it is. Summer may not be “a movie,” but we can love it all the same.

Statement Correspondent Kaya Ginsky can be reached at kginsky@umich.edu.