With my armor of a neon orange rubber jumpsuit speckled generously with brown, I pick up my shovel and scoop up another layer of cow feces and hay. Calves poop. A lot. I keep remembering my high school biology teacher saying that smelling poop means poop particles have reached your nose. This is my summer.
My days on Auðbrekka, a farm in northern Iceland, began at 7 a.m. with milking: waking up groggy, herding the four dozen cows into the barn, cleaning udders, operating milking machines, sweeping away feces, feeding ever-hungry calves and lambs and letting the cows back out. Afternoons meant mending fences, cleaning the calfhouse, pressure-washing tractors or a well-earned nap during rare free hours. Evenings meant another milking, then passing out by midnight. Repeat.
By April of this year, I still lacked concrete summer plans. The idea of pursuing agriculture floated around my head as a possibility, mostly as a romantic, vague notion. But pre-professional internships dominate Northwestern summer talk and loomed large as Something I Should Do. I had no intention of spending my nine-to-fives in an office after a taxing Spring Quarter. I wanted to travel – not tour – and work with people.
A close friend from high school introduced me to WWOOF in my semi-desperation. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an international network of farms, hostels and other independent host sites that provide volunteers with room and board in exchange for their labor. Each host determines the exact terms of trade, and anyone can register on each country’s branch website for an annual membership. I used HelpX, a similar network, for its cheaper worldwide membership.
Using a direct-contact barter network instead of a for-profit connector program made me less broke, but I still had to cover transportation and gear – extremely variable costs. Travel, much like college, is an incredible privilege, and it’s often accessible only for those whose family can afford it.
Ironically, Northwestern resources make summer plans besides paid jobs or conventional internships realistic for more students. I wish I’d taken advantage of them.
Our school has several acronym-friendly programs that promote experiential learning: GESI (Global Engagement Studies Institute) under the Buffett Institute, AIESEC (International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences), the URG ( Undergraduate Research Grant) and the ULG (Undergraduate Language Grant). NU programs also provide safety resources and require insurance for students abroad.
Sophomore Hannah Whitehouse had always wanted to go to East Africa, so she traveled abroad for the first time to Kenya with GESI this summer. The Bienen-SESP dual degree student chose the program because it was feasible with her workload and offered great financial aid to low-income students.
Opting to work in child development at a foreign non-governmental organization for eight weeks was a difficult choice for Whitehouse, a music education and social policy major. Like many other Bienen students, she had spent several previous summers at music festivals – the kind less like Lollapalooza, more like internships. Several music teachers questioned how the trip would supplement either major, which frustrated her.
“It was also just for me, as a person! So it was hard to explain why I was going to Kenya, when it was just something I wanted to do,” Whitehouse says.
Virtually any non-traditional experience can be funded by the Student Internship Grant Program (SIGP), as long as it is career-related training. Northwestern Career Advancement executive director Mark Presnell emphasizes that SIGP gives students an opportunity to pursue a creative, meaningful professional experience without financial pressure. Application evaluations are not a series of checked boxes, but qualitative and need-based assessments of how successfully the applicant connects the experience to their desired career.
“For example, if I had a student whose career goals are to go into engineering and they wanted to spend their summer tutoring inner city children, it might be more difficult for them to draw the connection between their career path and the experience,” Presnell says in an email. “If that same engineering student wanted to be a teacher, then it would be much easier for them to draw the connection. That is why we don’t promote internships for SIGP or not for SIGP – it really depends on the student application and their career development.”
Parker Levinson, a Weinberg junior double majoring in environmental science and African studies, received a Buffett International SIGP and conducted jaguar species research this summer in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland located mainly in western Brazil. For eight weeks, her bed was inside a floating hotel – that is, a fishing boat connected to a floating hotel.
Passionate about gaining experience in wildlife conservation work, she “didn’t really have a backup plan” and applied only to this internship with SouthWild, an ecotourism company.
Her days began at 6 a.m. with eight hours of observing jaguars on boat excursions. The isolated geographic location, limited Internet access and steady stream of visitors meant she had little to do besides work – for 14 hours a day, seven days a week. They ended with evenings educating lodge guests with presentations from the day’s findings. “Even if I had time off, there was nothing to do. Like, what was I gonna do? I was on a boat. So I just worked a lot,” she says. “My boss used to think that the Internet on the boat is really good. It’s not. I couldn’t even go back to my room to watch a movie, so I was pretty much always with guests.”
In Iceland, my days usually lasted 13 hours, with the exception of a sleep-in on Sunday. I cried quite a bit during the first few weeks, after falling through holes and off bikes, chasing stubborn runaway horses and cows or forgetting the milking order. But a big reason I traveled alone, and opted for a native working situation, was to immerse myself somewhere outside my comfort zone.
This was not American savior voluntourism. I was wholly dependent on my host family for my livelihood and learning. They demonstrated a clear, calm attitude towards life through actions, not preachy speeches: There’s time for tea, no matter how busy you are, and “shit happens,” literally and figuratively.
At the end of my six weeks, I was crying again – but because I had to leave. I had helped humanely raise livestock, consumed local food I helped produce and developed a visceral appreciation for the environment. I wanted to extend my confirmed interests in pursuing agricultural and environmental journalism. I also (temporarily) became a morning person, restored my physical and mental health after the stressful school year, and gained skills like patience, cooperation, map reading and insight into Icelandic culture.
The hands-on research also gave Levinson a valuable, realistic experience of working with animals and doing conservation work.
Likewise, Whitehouse’s GESI trip was simultaneously rewarding and challenging. She was limited by the misogyny she encountered, was singled out as the only white person around and struggled with the language barrier.
“There were days when I hated it. I’m not gonna be like, ‘Oh, it was absolutely perfect,’” she says. “On my Instagram and my Facebook, I made it look like it was perfect, because that’s what you do with your summer, but I had a really rough time being away from home for the first time.”
Ultimately, Whitehouse’s trip broadened her horizons. “I grew a lot this summer through the relationships I built,” she says, “and that was the easiest way to learn about Kenya and learn about society rather than Googling it or studying it in a textbook. I was able to learn so much more about where I was staying.”
Returning to home and school snapped each of us back to everyday Evanston life.
“It was kind of surreal,” Levinson says. “I mean, you know, you come back and you’re going to school and you’re like, ‘Oh crap, I have real things to do.’”
But these things don’t just happen and end, and traveling and doing fulfilling work isn’t limited to any specific experience level, academic interest or income. I’m participating in a Medill Global program reporting on climate change in Panama and Chicago and researching summer internships at agriculture or food magazines. Levinson, who has always wanted to work abroad, is considering an offer to return to Southwild Pantanal Lodge with a paid position next summer. Whitehouse is also looking into potential sites and SIGP for next summer to further study Spanish and work in music education.
“I’ve developed this desire to really do extravagant things with my summer,” Whitehouse says. “I just want to hit all the continents. It put this travel bug inside me.”