At 10 a.m. last Friday, I sat down with an accomplished mid-career professional whom a friend had recommended to me for internship advice; I’ll call him Joel. After Joel and I got to know each other, I outlined my five-point plan for getting a summer internship that could lead to a job after graduation. I told him where I planned to apply and what I would say in my cover letters. He brushed aside my well-constructed plan with an unsettling question: “What do you actually want to do this summer?”
Even as an aspiring policy wonk, I couldn’t honestly tell him that my ideal summer consists of fetching coffee and writing memos that no one will ever read. Still, it’s what you’re supposed to do! I told Joel that I needed to consider my future and do something that would look good on my resume. He told me I was full of crap. Again he asked, “What do you actually want to do this summer?” Hesitantly, I shared my utterly unrealistic, entirely hypothetical dream: driving across the country, staying a week here and a week there, sitting on porches with rheumy-eyed grandfathers, worshipping at churches of every variety, visiting presidential birthplaces, climbing a mountain or two, working odd jobs for gas money and writing about it. I want to follow in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville and the characters from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It’s far from unique. But it would be mine: a great American road trip of my very own.
I’m not the first young person to feel the tug of wanderlust. Another was E.B. White, the author whose obituary in the New York Times called him “one of the nation's most precious literary resources.” While he’s known for the children’s books Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, White was also a prolific nonfiction writer. I like his essays best. His cloth-bound collection has occupied a place of honor on my bookshelf ever since I stumbled across it in high school English.
In the essay “Years of Wonder,” White tells of his unusual but true journey to Alaska. After getting fired from a newspaper job, he decided to work on a steamship headed north. He served meals to the gruff men who shoveled coal into the ship’s furnace, cooped up in the ship’s belly like modern Jonahs. Why did the young White embark on that bizarre adventure? Because, he writes, “there is a period near the beginning of every man’s life when he has little to cling to except his unmanageable dream, little to support him except good health and nowhere to go but all over the place.”
On Sunday, I talked with a junior who would make E.B. White proud. Emma Arata just returned to Duke after a semester away. She had always planned to study abroad or do DukeEngage, but, at some point, she realized that “there were parts of myself I was ignoring and let stagnate while I forged on with the rigorously academic Duke life.” So last summer, instead of classes in Paris or service in Vietnam, she went to Alaska and worked in a salmon processing plant. On their days off, she said that her friends “would cram 12 people into the bed of a truck and drive to a beach to have a bonfire or hitchhike to the mountains or go dancing at the one tiny bar in town.”
I asked Emma if she changed during her time away from Durham. She said she didn’t change. Rather, she “became more genuinely herself.” Her words merit a full reprinting: “There’s a whole amazing world outside of Duke infinitely full of things you literally cannot fathom until you experience it. [Duke students] have been fed this limited idea of what success is and how you must achieve it to be happy, and we try to control our lives and push ourselves blindly forward in pursuit of that standard. If anything, I’ve learned that trying to control things is completely futile and real life happens when you follow your heart. Legitimate opportunities come to you when you’re doing the things you love.”
Emma is a free spirit. She wears Teva sandals with fuzzy socks and doesn’t much care about appearances. Yet, like most of us, she is also intellectual, driven and passionate—in her case, about what she calls the “human-food relationship.” Those qualities make her a true Dukie. Yet she resists the strictures of five-year plans, which makes her an unusual Dukie. We tend to follow plans and stick to timelines—that’s how we got here. Planning the future allows an illusion of control. Graduate in four years, spend two years in consulting, get an MBA, get a new job, get married, get promoted, find a house in the suburbs and have two-and-a-half kids. If we stick to plans, we avoid the possibility of failure. So we look for a “good” summer internship.
Joel told me that I wouldn’t find a good internship—unless I actually wanted one. He proposed a heresy that didn’t fit with any of my plans or expectations: Maybe I don’t need to do an internship this summer. Maybe I need to ignore my resume, hit the road and pursue an unmanageable dream, like Emma and E.B. White did. And maybe the pursuit of that dream will lead me to whatever truly lies down the road.
Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.