At the start of every academic year, I and other faculty members have to field a number of questions from students that boil down to “what do professors do all summer since we’re not in school?” Some ask out of genuine curiosity while others ask out of frustration that their “urgent” summer emails weren’t returned in less than fifteen minutes. Motivations aside, I try to answer those questions so that they understand that professorial work is a year long endeavor.
Students may not realize that our educational obligations are less than half of our work responsibilities. Research is a central part of our mission and the reason that many of us choose to go into the profession. While we work on our studies every week during the school year, the summer offers us opportunities that the strict academic calendar does not, particularly with student mentorship and the dissemination of information. For example, during each of the last two summers I’ve mentored a student in the CRS program. The summer offers us that chance for one-on-one interactions that aren’t possible during regular semester when we instruct 110 students. I traveled to Colorado to spend time touring the licit marijuana industry in 2015 and to New York to present to multiple practitioner audiences on how they should respond to their “K2 crisis” in 2016. These trips help to inform our research and spread knowledge so that practitioners base policy responses on scientific research rather than on assumptions and anecdotal evidence. The summer also offers us the chance to spend countless uninterrupted hours working on significant projects (e.g., Ronald Akers and my drug book with Cambridge University Press). We often also teach an extra online course and mentor grad students, but, as good citizens of the Charlotte area, we also often volunteer and give back to the community.
I spent some time this summer volunteering with Operation Summer Exposure (OSE), an organization founded and operated by a friend of mine from Salisbury, NC. River Lewis chose to develop OSE because he was the beneficiary of a gift during his childhood; an unknown party with his church paid his fees for a summer camping experience. River describes his experiences during that summer as life changing. His quest to “pay it forward” led him to seek donations to design and implement a similar program for youth that might need guidance to reach their potential. He has focused on youth from his two home communities, Rowan County, NC and the West End community of Atlanta, GA. He and his team of student volunteers largely recruited from Morehouse College work with those that may benefit from mentorship and challenging outdoor experiences in the same way that he did. His program specifically targets African American young men between 9 and 12 years-old that live in economically challenged environments or single parent households.
River collected funds and designed a program that included an array of outdoor experiences that the young men may have never gotten to experience otherwise. He set up opportunities to fish, kayak, canoe, paddleboard, swim, and sail. They learned to climb and rappel and also did some high ropes activities. They shot arrows and learned to use a shotgun to hit clay targets. They visited a transportation museum and rode a steam engine train. They held snakes and learned about poisonous plants.
OSE participants also learned about camping and wilderness survival. That’s where I came in. Charlotte’s best DJ (fine print: that’s my opinion as I am no way qualified to make a judgment there) and I taught them a variety of outdoor skills. Craig taught them to set up a campsite, operate a camping stove, and cook over an open flame while I taught them how to build fires even in poor conditions and offered several pioneering lessons. Surprisingly few had ever built or even been around a campfire, reinforcing the importance of River’s program that taught self-reliance and broadened their horizons. They picked up many of the skills quickly and made excellent progress on others.
I’m certain that the youth benefited from their week in the wilderness and will grow greatly from the continued mentorship of the Morehouse students. The youth were provided school supplies to help them in the upcoming year as they return to school, continue to communicate with the Morehouse team, and look forward to their next outdoor experience with OSE. Of note, none of the donations made to OSE were used to pay for salaries– River and Mercedes operate the program as volunteers. The Morehouse students spent a week camping with the youth just to serve their community. The retired teachers, cooks, DJs, professors, and so forth all freely assist with the program just to put their time off to meaningful use (and because it’s tough to refuse a favor to River). There are numerous outlets for charitable donations, but this makes OSE is an excellent choice; 100% of the donations go to supplies, food, transportation, and equipment/ site rental for the boys (River Lewis and OSE may be contacted here).
When I’m asked “What do professors do all summer?” I’ll jokingly answer that we take time off to go to the beach. That’s generally accurate, but it’s not the full story. That textbook you’re putting off reading was probably partially authored in the summer. The research study you’re reading for your 4000-level class may have been edited during the summer. That classmate that seems to have come back from summer vacation way ahead of everyone else may have been mentored in a REU or CRS-type program. That being said, we also spend our time doing things as educators, but in ways unrelated to our academic expertise, that may have a positive impact on the community.