A few days ago, one of my campers visited me at school. He’ll be coming to Yale in the fall and was full of the joy I remember feeling the first time I stepped on the Yale campus after being accepted. We were drinking tea outside in the glorious sunshine and he asked me what appeared to be an innocuous question: “Are you going back to camp?”
I paused, uncertain of how to respond. “No,” I said, “but I would like to.”
It was a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. In my mind, summer means Seeds of Peace, the conflict resolution camp located by a lake in Maine where I’ve spent three of the last six summers. Summer means the large expanse of blue water that catches the early morning light and the stars after sunset, the creaky wooden cabins with the finicky plumbing and the high-polished dining hall where we do table cheers. Summer means falling asleep at night to the sound of gentle lake waves and waking up each morning to loon cries.
These images hung before my eyes as I turned back to this camper, who loves Seeds of Peace as I and virtually everyone who have gone through the program or worked there do. Yet all of us have had to face a moment, either as a camper or counselor, when we realized that it was time for us to stop going back.
I’m in the process of redefining what summer means to me. This year, it will mean putting on collared shirts instead of dirty T-shirts, working in an office instead of the great outdoors and cooking for myself in an air-conditioned apartment. I’m not unhappy about any of these things — in fact, I’m profoundly excited about the work that I get to do this summer at an art museum in New York — but I also feel a sense of loss.
Not going back signals the end of an era and the need to look towards a future in which I have to balance what I love with what pays the rent and is an appropriate next step on a career trajectory. Ambition, I told my camper, can be a mixed blessing: While it spurs me to reach for greater accomplishments, it makes me self-conscious. I don’t like admitting to myself or to others that the major reason I’m not returning to camp is that it’s time to add another line to my resume, to embrace adult work and adult responsibilities in spite of my love for the Maine woods.
Most Yalies I know are struggling with similar questions of how we adjust to the high expectations for success that we impose on ourselves and have imposed on us with our desire to pursue passions. Grownups are saying two things at once: Follow what you love relentlessly, because otherwise life isn’t worth living, and make a comfortable life and living for yourself — even if it means letting go of earlier dreams. For some of us, the two mindsets will be possible to reconcile. But for many of us, there may be difficult choices ahead.
Summers in college are some of the first of these decision points. Senior year and life after graduation will be full of them. If I am struggling with this cognitive dissonance now, how much worse will it be when I have to decide about graduate school (Ph.D. or MBA?), whether to have children (do I stay at home or keep working?) and when to retire (more financial stability or more time to spend with the family?). I’m looking at what I hope will be a long, happy life with a certain amount of dread for the choices that my peers and I will have to make.
My camper listened thoughtfully as I spoke, but didn’t say much of anything. He’s not yet in college; these decisions aren’t yet very real for him. Compromise is only a peripheral part of his vocabulary, while it is becoming an essential part of mine. I feel grateful to have options, but at the same time, I am almost overwhelmed by these same options and the questions they pose.
This, then, is what I said to my camper as we walked back through the Yale campus: Hold on to what you love for as long as possible.
I smiled. I’m already deciding which weekend to visit.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.