Students struggle to balance work and school

I worked at a candy store in downtown Stillwater as my first job. I was 15 years old and got fired after three months. Thankfully my employment history has improved since then.

Throughout most of my University enrollment, I continued building that history. I worked 30 to 40 hours each week and more during the summer. Some jobs were to give me experience in journalism; others were just to pay the rent. Over the course of five years, I worked in the public safety and housing offices, as a teaching assistant and church secretary, as a religious peer minister, and as an education coordinator at the Science Museum of Minnesota. In addition, I interned at five newspapers and spent nearly three years working my way through the ranks of The Minnesota Daily.

Education officials across the country say it is detrimental for college or high school students to work more than part time because students cannot devote enough time to their studies, extracurricular activities or other enriching alternatives. But I don’t think they quite understand the dilemma most students face. The cost of living – not to mention attending the University – is quickly rising. With low vacancy rates in the University areas, landlords can afford to hike rent prices. When a friend of mine re-signed his lease for next year, his landlord raised the rent $25 per person. While not a monumental increase, that’s between three and four more hours of work each month.

Also, cars are often necessary if students choose to live in suburban parents’ homes or farther from the University to avoid high rent costs. Groceries, toiletries, clothing, textbooks – they all inflate the cost of college.

In addition, many times, the jobs paying for all of these expenses are not the same jobs offering experience to aid students’ futures. Many internships and other experience-gaining jobs are unpaid or poorly paid. But colleges also advise students that without these valuable opportunities, employers will be less inclined to hire them.

Students are expected to excel in their classes, pay increasing costs for tuition and books, balance outside expenses and gain valuable experience to eventually apply to the workforce. But they are also told not to work more than 20 hours per week. It is nearly impossible to balance all these factors.

Since I was a freshman, not a month of college has gone by when I have not been working. I had saved up enough money during high school to avoid full-time employment when I enrolled at St. Cloud State my first year, but I worked part time at the newspaper for experience. It allowed me time for my studies, outside activities, friends and many experiences that make for good memories.

Most students do not have it as good as I did my freshman year. I worked out of desire, not necessity. Once the savings account ran out, the necessity kicked in. I still lived in the residence halls, but other bills, including several credit cards, had begun to pose a problem to my measly newspaper earnings.

My sophomore year, I worked 20 hours a week at the public safety office. There were short intervals when homework could be done, but the office was generally busy and so was I. At the same time, I continued working at the newspaper for experience. Soon, I was working 30 or more hours each week, while still trying to juggle my classes, activities and friends.

When I transferred to the University, I began working at the housing office during the day and short stints at the Daily’s copy desk during the night. My hours steadily crept up, but I saw no other way to accomplish the things I needed to do. Now I had a rent payment and had recently bought a car for the commute. I needed the day job for my bills and the night job for the experience.

Then I got my break. I got hired on full time at the Daily, where I could now pay my bills and gain my experience together. I still worked between 30 and 40 hours each week, often middle-of-the-day hours and some late nights. I did all I could to keep all those balls in the air: classes, work, friends, family, and, not to mention, sleep.

Sleep is the big loser on college campuses. During the summers, I worked up to three jobs to make it easier on myself during the school year. I tried to pay off as much of my bills as I could during those three short months. And through all that, my course work did take a hit. I stayed up late and crammed for tests. Then I got up early and did that short homework assignment for another class.

My priority at the University was no longer my schoolwork but my employment. I got experience that has since earned me four of my five internships and will aid me immeasurably when I apply it to “real life” situations. I built some of my greatest relationships at the University and participated in important extracurricular activities – and still got a B average.

The University needs to wake up to what’s going on. While it is ideal to find a job that allows you a hefty paycheck and important experience, it’s rare.

Most students have to attempt both or lose out in one of the two areas. My transcript hosts a few C’s and, I’m almost ashamed to say, one D.

But for me, college was a balancing act and I think I did a pretty good job. The University’s tuition hike and other cost increases will only force more students to perform the same act I did.


Erin Ghere’s column appears weekly. She welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]