Self-directed Summer Projects, a Step-by-Step Process

As we immerse ourselves in virtual end-of-year celebrations, finding creative ways to honor our students’ accomplishments and achievements, summer looms large with its uncertainty. With plans for internships, travel, or other structured experiences canceled, and employment unlikely, many are hoping to find meaningful options without the benefit of formal structure or support.

As I promote the value of mentored projects, the appeal is undeniable. The idea of students exploring topics or fields of interest, leveraging online resources, and exploring their own communities and networks leaves many asking where to sign up. But with colleges and universities consumed with COVID-19 related planning, few are offering facilitated support, especially for independent projects or internships. At the UB Experiential Learning Network, we focus entirely on connecting students with meaningful mentored projects, cultivating an ever-expanding portfolio of offerings, while also supporting independent projects developed entirely by students. Regardless of the specific nature of the project, we move students through the various stages of engagement, helping them earn digital badges along the way and encouraging them to take their experiences even further toward deeper impacts.

While our Project Portal is available only to UB students, I am happy to share our model and strategies for transforming summer (or fall) into meaningful projects for all students, regardless of age or background. The most exciting part of this approach is the fact that compelling projects do not require money or privileged access to networks or contacts, but instead depend entirely on students’ willingness to fully commit to Preparation, Engagement and Adding value, Reflection and Leveraging their experiences toward broader impacts. We call this process PEARL and we encourage all students to enjoy its benefits.

But before getting started with a project, and the PEARL framework, students must negotiate two critical tasks that will set them up for success.

  • Design your project

Your project should be inherently meaningful, to you and some external audience that you deem important. In deciding what to work on, focus on the outcome, making sure it is important and worthy of your time and effort, while also aligning with your interests and goals. A good project should stretch you, driving you to seek out new experiences and opportunities that you would not normally pursue, and engage with people, ideas, places and/or organizations in ways that will challenge your understanding and perspective. Your project should fit the parameters of your specific circumstances- namely, do you have a month or an entire semester or year to work on your project? Many students are opting for a Gap Year during the duration of online instruction. Your project can be as ambitious and multi-faceted as you choose to make it, but the initial design should reflect your constraints and expectations from the very beginning. I invite you to browse our available projects to get a sense of scope and framing. Note that most projects are designed to take about a semester, although some can be extended further. I offer some additional suggestions for summer projects at the end of this post, in hopes of getting you started thinking about possible ways to frame your ideas and interests. Remember that in order to sustain your efforts and attention, especially without the threat of grades or assignments, your project needs to be bold and interesting- so allow yourself to get personal and dream big.

  • Find a mentor

Mentors can dramatically affect the impact of a project. Often, colleges and universities pair students with faculty mentors who invite them into their laboratories and research programs, offering support in navigating choices and opportunities. You can enjoy the benefits of a mentor even without a formal placement or affiliation. Simply invite someone whose opinion you respect, someone who has something to offer in relation to your project. Let them know what you are asking- essentially for them to provide guidance, feedback and recommendations along the way, and ultimately vet your final product, providing an endorsement if they are so inclined. Note that you can have multiple mentors, and should seek out individuals who can help you deepen your understanding and leverage your time and efforts. Having mentors can help you follow through with your commitments, not wanting to disappoint them or waste their time. You might identify mentors in your own networks or extended families, but do not be afraid to approach someone in the community or broader field, especially if you have a compelling project and story to draw them in.

Once you have designed your project and secured a mentor, it is time to begin working through the PEARL framework. Take each step seriously and seek feedback and guidance along the way.

  • Prepare

This first step represents an important opportunity for growth and achievement, although few students take it seriously, instead choosing to jump right in. The truth is that we need to ready ourselves for high-impact experiences, establishing a base of context, skills and core understanding. Through my work at the University at Buffalo, I take students to a remote region of northern Tanzania, a place that is jarringly different from Buffalo, New York. Invariably, the students who get most from the trip have a base of knowledge and understanding on which to build. They are able to interpret specific experiences through historical and cultural lenses, building on their understanding to achieve deeper perspective. Similarly, students with basic laboratory skills are better able to immerse themselves in specialized research opportunities, approaching the work with some level of confidence and core competencies on which they can further build. In these ways, preparation sets students up for success and ensures that they will be ready for the opportunities they encounter. In the ELN, we approach preparation through three important steps. Each is necessary and inherently important- so allow yourself to dig in and fully commit to the process.

  • Set your intentions

Imagine yourself at the end of your project, discussing what you accomplished with someone whose opinion you value. When asked what you got from the experience, what will you say? Rather than leaving your learning to chance, it is helpful to set intentions from the very beginning, committing to certain outcomes that are especially important to employers and academic programs and institutions. Take a look at the Career Readiness Skills, which include learning outcomes that employers report lacking in most college graduates. If you are able to demonstrate strengths related to these outcomes, including skills such as collaboration, problem solving, communication, and cultural competence, you will be more compelling as a candidate. You might also review the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics that include outcomes that are of particular interest to academic institutions and liberal arts education. If you embark on your project ready to develop these competencies, you are more likely to find the experience meaningful in supporting your goals. In other words, you will get what you expect.

  • Establish general context

You may choose to do a project related to an area of expertise or instead something entirely new and unexplored. Regardless of your level of experience, it is important to frame your project in a general understanding of its relationship to a broader context. Students often skip this step as well, as they jump into internships, research or other types of experiential learning. In doing so, they fail to establish basic knowledge and skills, ultimately limiting their ability to explore or discuss their experience in compelling and powerful ways. If you are focusing your project on a particular industry or technology, you might begin by exploring the history of innovation, or related or competing discoveries in the field. Before beginning a project with a particular faculty mentor, you might research their body of work, gaining an understanding of their interests and priorities along with their educational and professional background. Spending time developing an understanding of context will help you in many ways, especially when you encounter challenges or disappointments. Rather than quitting a project when things fail to go as planned, you can gain the necessary perspective and identify ways to adapt or better understand the challenges. Before starting a project, allow yourself to get curious and explore the universe surrounding whatever topic you have chosen, noting any areas of interest or surprise that may lead to new insights or areas for further exploration. Here is a tip: If you are not interested in your topic enough to want to explore surrounding context, then you might need to find a different project. Let your curiosity be your guide.

  • Develop specialized skills and knowledge

In addition to general context, many projects call for specialized skills, knowledge or experiences necessary to fully engage and complete the related activities. Rather than be intimidated by learning more, accept the challenge and explore creative ways to obtain access to important opportunities and information. Remember that the internet provides an expansive universe of trainings, professional development, and competence building resources- many completely free and open-access. While official credentials and degrees are valuable, they are not always necessary, especially when projects speak for themselves once executed. You just might find it freeing and enjoyable to explore new skills and areas of development without the need to obtain certification or official endorsement.

After reading through these steps, it is probably not surprising that preparation can take a long time. But depending on your specific time allowance, you can adapt accordingly. Regardless of the scope of your project, however, preparation is a critical step that should be valued and taken seriously. Share your preparation with your mentor, perhaps synthesizing your work through a report or reflection paper. Take pride in what have already accomplished and get excited for the experiences and learning that lie ahead.

  • Engage and Add Value

This step represents the heart of your project- namely, the execution of a plan toward some outcome that is inherently meaningful. In the ELN, we group Engagement and Adding Value together because doing so makes your efforts more powerful. What will your final product look like and why will it matter?  Here are some general tips to consider as you engage.

  • Start with a project plan and share with you mentor before getting started. The plan should focus on the final product and work backwards, clarifying individual components and steps and setting goals and targets to keep you on track.
  • Identify the beneficiary of your project- even if it is theoretical. Namely, what populations or communities might, or should, be interested in the outcomes? If possible, think about ways to engage them through the process, inviting input while also establishing an audience with whom to share your final product
  • Identify any necessary costs or access critical to the success of the project. If obtaining these resources presents risk or uncertainty, you might need to adapt your plan to ensure viability for success. Many students begin projects that they are unable to complete due to funding issues or lack of access. Set your project up for success by thinking through these details in advance and modifying plans accordingly.
  • Seek frequent input from mentors and peers. Sometimes we get lost in our own work and fail to see alternate paths or possible solutions. It is also helpful to get reassurance and validation along the way.
  • Stay focused on the intended outcomes, resisting the urge to switch projects mid-course or take on something different that might seem more exciting or doable. The ability to persevere is an important skill to develop. But also allow yourself some flexibility to explore alternate paths or solutions as necessary.

When it comes to your final product, make it as impressive as possible and think about the various audiences with whom you will want to share your work. In the ELN, students earn digital badges upon completing their projects, and their work is embedded in the badge itself, serving as an ePortfolio of sorts. Regardless of how you display or share your work, the finished product should be polished and fully executed. Make sure you get the final approval from your mentor along with any endorsements or recommendations they can offer. Also ask if you can stay in touch, securing the benefits of continued communication and support.

  • Reflect

Reflection is just as important as the project itself. The idea of stepping away and thinking about what you have done and learned through various lenses will allow you to access new opportunities for growth and insight. In the ELN, we have a Reflection Badge that walks students through the stages of reflection. First, students revisit their learning intentions that were set during Preparation, noting any surprises, growth, or areas for further development. Next, they watch a video titled, “Telling Compelling Stories about your Experiences and Achievements” that shares a process for connecting projects with an audience of interest, perhaps a potential employer or graduate school. I encourage you to watch the video and reflect on your own experiences as they relate to your professional and academic goals.  After watching the video, students practice talking about their own experiences, recording videos of their own. Students report that this process is quite useful, especially the opportunity to see themselves talking, and making modifications to achieve some level of comfort and proficiency. As explained in the video, narratives can be quite powerful, including those we tell others, but even more importantly, the internal narratives that guide our efforts, especially in the face of adversity or challenge. I hope you will continue to reflect on your project long after it is completed, discovering new insights and opportunities to connect with audiences and experiences that will continue to help you grow and find success.

  • Leverage

We almost always fall short when it comes to leveraging our experiences toward deeper and broader impacts. While we invest heavily in activities that can differentiate us and support our goals, we are quick to move on to the next endeavor as soon as we complete the task at hand. But once you have invested in something important, why not continue to harvest the fruits of your labor? There are so many ways you can continue to build on your project to benefit your own professional growth, or further support your community partner. Where will your project lead you? Will you continue to explore a topic, clarify your career or academic pathways, or perhaps seek out additional opportunities to serve, learn, or contribute? So much of our success and fulfilment stems from the stories we tell about ourselves, and others. Allow your project to impact your story, providing insights, humility, and a sense of curiosity that will lead you in exciting and meaningful directions. Find inspiration in other students’ stories by visiting our stories page and think about adding your own.

I hope this process has been helpful with the design and navigation your own projects. I know the first step of “dreaming up” projects is difficult for most people. It happens to be my favorite part. Here is a short list of project ideas for you to consider and build upon. Remember, virtually anything can be a project- as long as it culminates in something meaningful. So be personal, creative and bold. Make your project count.

  1. Raise seed money for an identified cause through some fundraising activity and then invest in start-ups or organizations with related missions, or perhaps develop and pilot an initiative of your own
  2. Find an organization that you believe in and help promote their efforts or build capacity in some meaningful way
  3. Explore your community through a specific lens and create an app or interactive website to invite engagement from others
  4. Do a deep dive into your family history, interviewing different family members and chronicling important events, developing an interactive archive that future family members can enjoy and learn from
  5. Find an internet-based initiative that is seeking engagement such as open-source mapping, Wikipedia, or a global idea challenge and set some goal for participation or recognition
  6. Learn about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and embark on a challenge to change your own behavior or those of others in your community or spheres of influence in support of goals or targets.
  7. Choose a part of the country or world that you want to visit and plan your adventure. Allow yourself to explore the region and build your itinerary including travel details and budget- dream big or be realistic and frugal, use technology to transport yourself and make a travelogue to share your journey with others
  8. Explore the COVID-19 pandemic through a particular lens- education, health, economics, etc…- and identify organizations or models that will help us move forward, or alternately, models that are no longer relevant/effective. Focus your project on ways to innovate, better addressing the needs of communities or the allocation or management of resources.
  9. Dig into access and equity issues. Explore your community through a particular lens of challenge and access. Conduct research, interview those around you to understand specific challenges and inequities. Based on your research, identify solutions and engage others in your ideas and plans.
  10. Find a sense of purpose or passion. age in a structured journey to explore different career paths and areas of study and exploration. Allow yourself to get curious, to read, to talk to people, to immerse yourself in new ideas and sources of information. Learn about yourself and your history, and commit to setting some life intentions and goals that will set you on a path toward fulfillment and success.

Let these ideas inspire you to create your own projects, to leverage your unique resources and stories to achieve something important and resonant. Now, more than ever, the world needs doers, professionals who can add value, setting meaningful goals, and navigating challenges and uncertainties toward some meaningful outcome. Regardless of your circumstances or the evolving COVID landscape, know that you have what you need to keep moving forward. I implore you to be bold with your projects, to find mentors to support and encourage your work, and to leverage your investments toward bigger and far-reaching impacts. And most of all, have fun- there’s nothing more exciting than pursuing your dreams.

– Mara