Collage of four photos of college students having fun

Summer Fun Can Help Students Find Belonging

A UVA professor says summer can provide space for college students to discover more of what they like.

Audrey Breen

Illustration by John DiJulio, University Communications.

From travel to internships, summer jobs to an extra course, summer is a time for college students to break out of their typical semester routine.

But Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, a professor in the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development’s higher education program, said the summer is also a good opportunity for college students to learn more about themselves by discovering new hobbies or activities to enjoy.

And while these activities can be fun, they can also help college students find ways to feel like they belong at school. 

Inkelas studies the college experience, especially student belonging and well-being. College students experience high levels of stress and anxiety; Inkelas’s research has shown that a sense of belonging is connected to students’ well-being. 

While students often hope to leverage summer break to get ahead academically or take advantage of opportunities to improve their post-graduation employment prospects, Inkelas encourages students to also spend time doing something just because they like it and perhaps take time to explore new things.

Karen Inkelas
Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas studies college student belonging and well-being.

“High-achieving students tend to drop out of college because they are having difficulty fitting in, not because they are struggling academically,” Inkelas said. “Finding people who share interests with you is a great way to make connections and find belonging in college. And spending time discovering what those things are is definitely not time wasted.”

And when students return to their regular academic routines, they are likely to find an outlet to continue pursuing their newfound interests. UVA boasts more than 700 student clubs and organizations

“Most colleges have a club for anything you could imagine,” Inkelas said. “And those clubs can create opportunities for community and connection – things that directly impact student wellbeing.”

The benefits of discovery extend well beyond finding community. College is a time of real pressures, with academic rigor, new responsibilities, navigating friends and other relationships. Spending time over the summer to play and engage in fun can be a part of taking a much-needed break.

“Students need to take some time to turn off the many appropriate stressors that are part of the college experience,” Inkelas said. “Engaging in new fun activities can be a helpful part of taking a break.”

Spending time actively discovering new activities may also impact students’ academic path.

“Some students enter college with a clear idea of what career they want and move in that direction from day one,” Inkelas said. “But for many, it takes some time to discover where they may find fulfillment. Taking some time over the summer to enjoy new things might help unlock some of those interests or talents.”

In her work, Inkelas also finds college to be a time when peers become increasingly accepting of who their friends are and what they like. 

Inkelas recommends students use the summer to try the things they have been thinking about doing but never got around to, like visiting a farmer’s market, learning to bake, taking up pickleball, or even learning to make paper boxes, like Inkelas did, to discover new joys and ways to connect with others.

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Audrey Breen