No one is paid to be a student. It takes a lot of effort to show up on time to class every day, participate regularly, complete all your homework and classwork assignments, and keep up on required reading and writing. The compensation for these efforts in the end is your diploma or degree. But the financial costs of formal education must still be paid. Family assistance, savings, scholarships, or loans can help to cover the expenses of tuition, books, food, and housing while you are enrolled in school. Yet even these sources of income may not be sufficient or readily available. If that is the case, you will need to find work.
I came from a big family, the oldest of six children. My parents were both educated and worked hard, but the uncertain economic times of the 1970s demanded resourcefulness and perseverance. Accordingly, I found work as soon as I was able. I delivered newspapers on my bicycle as an 8th and 9th grader in all four seasons in Virginia and was paid to write in calligraphy on diplomas and certificates. When I moved to California to finish high school, I shelved books at several branches of the Long Beach Public Library in my junior year and served ice cream sundaes at a candy store as a senior.
I typically worked 10-20 hours a week during the semester and full-time in the summer and over winter break. Maintaining such a schedule while living at home had its challenges. I did not have much time for a social life. I had to go to sleep early to have enough energy to attend classes and work my shift. Sometimes I had to isolate myself to concentrate on my schoolwork after completing my household chores. This was not always easy in such a large family. I spent many hours in the high school library finishing assignments in order to have a quiet environment in which to work.
I did well in high school and was awarded a UC Regents Scholarship to attend college, but the full ride only covered my freshman year. I did not want to rely on loans, so I looked for part-time and seasonal work. I was hired as a busboy at a local deli when I went home for winter break, and a neighbor got me a full-time summer job as a restaurant host across from the Los Alamitos racetrack when my freshman year was over. I wore a cowboy hat and sang in the lounge band when I was not seating guests at their tables.
Over winter break of my sophomore year I worked as a custodian at Disneyland, sweeping the streets of Frontierland and following the horses in the Main Street parade. I helped lost children find their parents and cleaned out the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. When I returned north for the spring term, I went to work as a ride operator on the Giant Dipper roller coaster and other attractions at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I also landed a position as a food server and dishwasher for the Saga Food Corporation on campus.
Balancing school with work was even more of a challenge in college than it had been in high school. As an American Studies major, I was faced with hundreds of pages of reading each week in history, literature, and political philosophy. The essays I had to write occasionally in high school were now replaced with longer term papers on a regular basis. Both my part-time jobs were demanding, and I eventually had to drop the position at the boardwalk. The campus cafeteria job offered a free meal as well as wages for every shift, so I focused my energies there.
I decided to stay in Santa Cruz during the summers of 1981 and 1983 to work at the English language institute on campus. I served international students breakfast, lunch, and dinner and worked the big dishwashing machine afterwards. I was not enrolled in summer classes myself so I was able to work a full-time shift. In the summer of 1982 I went home to Orange County to finish the first draft of my senior thesis on the Japanese American soldiers in World War II (see my blog entry on “Ghosts of Manzanar”). I graduated the next year with only a small student loan balance to take with me. Part-time and seasonal work had covered most of my expenses.
I applied to five graduate programs in American Studies and was accepted to three. I chose to attend the University of Massachusetts at Boston in part because they were the only school to offer me financial assistance. This came in the form of part-time work. I served one of my professors as a research assistant during my first two semesters and worked in the offices of a local peace organization as part of a work-study program in my final term. I went back to northern California in between semesters to work as a bilingual counselor at a summer camp operated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
I finished my coursework in Boston by December of 1984 and moved to the Bay Area to enroll in seminary. During the spring of 1985 I registered with a temporary employment agency and was hired to type housing contracts for the City of Berkeley while I finished the final draft of my Master’s thesis. Temp agencies are great resources for part-time jobs. Many firms and organizations have extra work that cannot be farmed out to their regular employees. Temporary positions are ideal for students and can sometimes morph into more permanent work. Develop your skill set in office and computer work and you will rarely be unemployed.
I spent six years earning my Master of Divinity degree at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. During that time I worked many part-time jobs, including student hospital chaplain, development assistant at a church-sponsored senior center, data entry clerk at a hospital pharmacy, painter of the president’s house on campus, and director of youth and education programs at a local parish. After returning from my internship year in Hawai’i, I worked part-time as an office assistant in the seminary’s field education office.
The field education job involved placing students in their internship and teaching parishes across the western United States and interfacing with local clergy and congregations. It was a helpful link between full-time student life and my first independent pastoral assignment in Kansas. When I returned to California the following year to pursue a new career, I found another job through a temporary agency in Sacramento. This developed into a full-time permanent job that lasted for many years and allowed me to transition to my first teaching position in 1998.
Most of my students over the next two decades were working in jobs during or in between semesters. Several joined their families in seasonal agricultural work. Some worked for their parents’ businesses. Many worked in retail, food service, or tourism. Whenever I asked my economics seniors how many of them were working outside of school, I always got a forest of raised hands. For six years in Bakersfield, I taught working adults in the evening. The task of balancing school with work is something many students deal with every day.
The costs of education have increased exponentially in the three decades since I was a student. The “Millennial” generation that formed the largest group of my own students is now faced with astronomical tuition and housing bills that deter many from pursuing higher degrees. For some, the best choice is to remain at home and attend their local community college while working part-time. Such jobs are still available to students, but conditions of underemployment in the economy have limited opportunities for advancement. The issue of student debt has made its way into political debate and national news.
Yet in spite of these challenges, higher education can still offer the path to a brighter future. Because of rising costs, more students need to work while attending school. But there are also more scholarship programs available, particularly to those with special skills or economic need. Working in the community or on campus builds a strong resume and helps you discern where you want to go next. Experimenting with different industries and career paths is a healthy way to work toward economic independence. Allow time for rest, exercise, and play while you work. A balanced life is a happy life.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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