When you’re an undergrad, working during the school year can cramp your style. I worked as a research assistant last semester – it was all Excel spreadsheets and Google searches – and I complained about it at every available opportunity. But after talking to my friend Caroline, I realized I had nothing to complain about.
During sophomore year, my then-roommate Caroline had the worst schedule. After attending classes, she’d work in a Biology Department lab, then work an afternoon shift at a second job on campus. She would then catch a ride to her third job – babysitting for a local family. Afterwards, she’d return to campus and work the night shift at the local Ben and Jerry’s. While juggling a full course load (including Organic Chemistry, a nightmare for all pre-med students) she was working up to 30 hours a week.
“The amount I was working was ridiculous,” said Caroline, who took on extra jobs that year to earn money for her family. Her mom helps take care of sick relatives, and the family needed money to ease the financial burden. “I don’t think that there are a lot of students in that situation where they have such a strenuous schedule, where they are so tired by the end of the day.”
Caroline is one of many college students helping shoulder the burden of their family’s financial responsibilities while pursuing a challenging course load at top institutions. While working four jobs, Caroline had very little time to study for classes and even less time to sleep. An ordinary day began at 10 AM with back-to-back classes, and ended at 1am after getting back from her shift at Ben and Jerry’s. That left 9 hours a day for studying, eating, and sleeping.
“It was difficult. My grades definitely suffered just because of trying to keep all those balls in the air,” Caroline said. She found it difficult to remain involved with her sorority and other student organizations, and hard to remain connected with friends. “I had to be a lot more scheduled with my time. I couldn’t just say [to a friend], ‘oh, let’s go out to dinner,’” she remembered.
Additional stress came from one of her bosses, who refused to acknowledge the fact that she was a student with other responsibilities. “They didn’t necessarily understand the concept of finals at Ben and Jerry’s. They would be like, ‘you’re working this day and this day,’ and I was like, ‘I have two finals that day!’”
Ben and Jerry’s wasn’t the safest place to work, either, because of its location respective to our campus. Caroline didn’t have a car, and the local taxi service wouldn’t pick up from Ben and Jerry’s – so she would have to walk by herself to the pick-up location. “My mom didn’t know about Ben and Jerry’s,” Caroline said. “She would have flipped out if she had known that I was taking [the taxi service] home in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.”
For students helping their families with financial responsibilities, shouldering the load will always be stressful. On the other hand, working during the academic year can be a benefit. My friend Margaret holds a work-study job at our Campus Career Center. She doesn’t work as much as Caroline did – only 10 hours a week – but the work-study job is part of her financial aid package, so it still helps her family pay for her college education. The job comes with a lot of perks for career-minded students, including first notice about internship programs and employment offers, and face time with potential employers. “My boss ensures that my involvement will somehow benefit me,” Margaret says.
Working on campus does involve a trade-off, however. “There are times when I will be at work and I know that I have a huge exam the following day that I really need to study for,” Margaret says. “I have had to sacrifice attending a social event or a meeting because I had something that needed to be done for my job. But it is worth it.”
Margaret had a positive experience because she chose to work on-campus and has an understanding boss. “Stay away from retail,” Caroline warned. “They tend not to understand as much about school. You want to pick a position in a department on campus – somewhere where your hours are flexible, you can come in when you have time, and you can make the money you need to make.”
Also, working at night is not the best arrangement. “Don’t be lulled into thinking that,” said Caroline. “You need the night time [to yourself] because you need to do homework and decompress.”
Margaret had a warning for potential student job-holders, as well: stay away from “anything that bores you.” If you’re considering taking a job during the academic year, pick somewhere that interests you. Make sure you like where you work, so that if you’re asked to copy or file something, you won’t take it as a personal offense.
Lastly, if you find that you need to work long hours or find an extra job (for personal reasons or because of familial obligations) try to consider all your options. Talk to your dean or counselor. Maybe you can go to school part-time while you help yourself or your family out of a financial rut. Maybe there are ways to increase your financial aid. Just do everything you can to make sure that you maintain your own sanity if you enter into the working world this academic year.