For Yale undergraduates, a certain conversation has become all too familiar: “Hey! How was your summer?” (pause) “It was great! I did consulting in X, travelled to Y and then worked with villagers in Z.” Such conversation fodder might seem exotic to the newly arrived freshmen, but to the rest of Yale it usually smacks of worldlier-than-thou one-upmanship.

True, not everyone is tailoring their summer to impress someone. Many Yalies genuinely want to leave their thumbprints on the world. Others want to build lasting connections in the political, financial or academic spheres. Still others just want to learn how to properly dismember someone with 15th century weaponry. This diversity of pursuits, this seeming Balkanization of interest — it all begs the question: Is it possible to balance, or even combine, the personal and the pragmatic? What should students get out of the Yale Summer?

“There’s really nothing better”

Yalies have been entering the fields of consulting and finance for decades, and these two occupations — as well as their monetary rewards — endure in popularity. Saad Usmani ’07 dedicated his summer to a job many Yalies dream of: an internship at Merrill Lynch. Usmani was glib about the objective of his summer.

“If you want to embark on the metaphorical fast track, there’s really nothing better,” he said. “Once you’ve got that one thing on your resume, everyone knows you’re capable of doing the hardest kind of work.”

Usmani’s evaluation of an I-banking summer seems to have put him on the fast track, no metaphor required. Like many of the Yalies who worked similar jobs, he was recently offered full-time employment after he graduates this spring.

The financial world is not without disadvantages, though. As Usmani says, I-banking is not a field designed for those who wish to leave their personal imprint on the world in a single season.

“I feel like I definitely had an impact on the lives of the immediate people I was working with,” Usmani said. But, when it comes to having a larger impact, his outlook was candid. “Hoping to impact a huge multinational company on a larger scale … over the course of a mere summer would be an absurd goal to have.”

“A unique synthesis”

Then again, maybe it is possible to influence the world in the course of a few months; for example, by telling the Middle Kingdom what to wear. Yale’s fashionista laureate — Peter Hamilton ’07 — did just that as a summer intern for How magazine, one of Shanghai’s premier fashion publications. (“Hao” in Mandarin means “good.” Multi-lingual puns seem a definite plus for marketing.) The city is still shaking off the last awkward chains of communism and is apparently hungry for a little bit of couture — haute or not. With Hamilton at their side, How defended its Chinese market share against a deluge of Western magazines such as Elle and Harper’s.

Hamilton’s summer wasn’t all about drawing the line between rags and finery. “I chose the program because it had both Chinese classes and also arranged an internship for me,” Hamilton said. “Besides the convenience of a pre-arranged internship, the program seemed to offer a unique synthesis.”

“Guys … who have lots of guns”

Not war nor militias nor Yale security warnings can stay some Yalies from following their interests to every corner of the globe.

“Where I like to be is on the fault line between politics and policy,” Whitney Haring-Smith ’07 said.

True to his dictum, Haring-Smith, a political science major, spent the summer in Afghanistan, working for the United Nations organization Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups. DIAG, as it’s known among the Central Asian expat set, is dedicated to disarming the warlords that still control much of the country. Haring-Smith said that the organization dealt mainly with non-state actors.

“Basically, guys who aren’t the government but have lots of guns,” Haring-Smith said.

One of DIAG’s achievements while Haring-Smith worked in Afghanistan was brokering a deal with a local warlord, who had agreed to turn over five metric tons of illegal ammunition. In exchange for the contraband, the warlord requested that a paved road be built to his village — which was previously without a basic infrastructure. Moving the ammunition out would be a challenge.

Unfazed, Haring-Smith’s organization masterminded a caravan of donkeys to move the ammunition over the dozen kilometers between the village and the nearest major road. The deal went off as planned. One more Afghan town was saved, and Haring-Smith’s Facebook profile is now graced by photos of livestock, ex-mujahedeen and rows upon rows of artillery shells.

“Experimentation and exploration”

For many, of course, the ideal Yale Summer is spent neither in the confines of a financial district office tower nor in the sprawl of a foreign metropolis. Each summer, a few Yalies dedicate themselves to strengthening the local community right here in New Haven. For those who choose to spend their summer in the field of public service, opportunities abound. One of the best-known is the President’s Public Service Fellowship, which funds selected outreach programs in the New Haven area.

Growing up in Connecticut, Maya Shankar ’07 said she has noticed major changes in New Haven. One of the Elm City’s strengths, she said, is the “vibrant community of organization that want to make it a better city.”

The fellowship program, funded through Yale President Richard Levin’s office, taps into the strength of that community while allowing students to test-drive potential careers, Reginald Solomon, the program’s director, said.

“Summers should be used as periods for experimentation and exploration,” Solomon said.

Such a mantra might seem a tad obvious, and thus easy to dismiss. But Solomon’s personal experience bears out the value of such an approach.

“I had one enthusiastic student fellow who, during the interview process, said, ‘I know nothing about city planning and urban planning, but I’m thinking of it as a possible focus area and would like to learn more,’” Solomon said. “At the end of the summer, the student, who received a fellowship [and] did a terrific job at his worksite, said to me, ‘… While I enjoyed it, I now know city planning is not where I want to focus my career.’”

Shankar, though, has remained involved with her organization, Town Green Services, which aims to increase the urban appeal of the downtown district. After her fellowship, she started an group at Yale so that her classmates could participate in the nonprofit as well.

“It was an incredibly valuable Yale summer — probably the best summer I’ve had so far … and I’ve gone abroad on fellowships and everything,” Shankar said.

“Career development”

Not surprisingly, things aren’t much different at Yale’s opposite number. Despite the unceasing pressure to become the Leaders of Tomorrow and Pave The Way To A Bright New Future, Harvard students seem to find the freedom to live out their summers as they please. Case in point: Miriam Goldberg, a Harvard junior.

Goldberg, who studied Spanish in Leon this summer, said she and most of her peers typically reject the structure typically laid out for their undergraduate vacations by administrators.

“My freshman year, a Harvard adviser told me something about summers which amounted to something like this: You’re given four summers,” Goldberg said. “Three out of four of them should be used for ‘career developme
nt,’ and you have one ‘wild card.’ I, and most people I know, totally reject that formula. I want to spend my summers doing things I won’t have the luxury to do when I’m no longer in college.”

Our state school compatriots have the same desires, but different priorities. As Matt Gidden, a sophomore at Texas A&M University, said in an e-mail, “Most A&M students spend their summers acquiring funds for college and their future.” But money isn’t the only thing on the minds of his classmates, Gidden said. “Many students also get work experience from internships at national labs … or corporations.”

“The perfect vacation spot”

If you’re already engaged in a culture through heritage or language study at Yale, traveling abroad in the summer might seem like a fairly simple decision. But what about spending your break in an entirely new culture? Such was the situation of most students who attended Yale’s Summer Session in Croatia.

“Everything I’ve heard about Croatia in the past three years is that it’s beautiful and the perfect vacation spot,” Sarah Boyette ’07 said. Boyette took “History and Culture of the Adriatic Basin,” a two-credit course, while soaking in the sights and often tumultuous history of Croatia.

Though Croatia may be a less popular summer destination than London or Paris, Boyette said her time there has broadened her worldview.

“Since I went, I’ve found myself getting interested in news articles dealing with the former Yugoslavia,” she said. “You end up interested in it even if you weren’t to start with.”

“People being hacked into little pieces”

Then again, many Yalies find adventure without venturing overseas. Take Emma Lunbeck ’08, who traveled to Las Vegas this summer for the Society of American Fight Directors’ three-week course in stage combat training. Lunbeck, a dramatist and a member the Control Group — Yale’s experimental theatre collective — said she had both professional and personal reasons for attending such a class.

“I’m on a quest to find out why violence is so wildly entertaining,” Lunbeck said. “I think violence — personal violence … is misunderstood. Few people even make an effort to understand it.”

And what would the Yale Summer be without having an academic slant as well? Lunbeck’s interest in the bloody is scholarly as well as personal.

“I’m a religious studies major working on the Crusades and the medieval period in general,” she said. “I figured learning about how a broadsword actually works might come in handy when I’m reading primary accounts of people being hacked into little pieces.”