Sometimes it feels as if I’m the only one amongst my peers who works my way through school. Maybe it’s because I go to an art school, where the aspiring filmmakers and poets (tend to) come from affluence.
As an undergraduate, I worked four(!) jobs: I was a work study in the registrar’s office, a freelance proofreader, a marketing intern at a telecommunications manufacturer, and a typesetter for a woman who was writing her novel longhand.
As a graduate student, I’m currently working full-time in higher education, and it’s still strange to me that more people don’t
work their way through school, given how grateful I am now for my work experiences.
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When I was last visiting my parents, my brother maintained that it was “okay” that he was letting his work study (financial aid) go to waste because, as he put it, “track is my job” (he’s a pole vaulter). I maintain a pretty regular fitness routine myself, so I understand the time commitment, but comparing his (unpaid) participation in athletics to a job seems a bit unfair to me.
Probably my least favorite job as an undergraduate was my marketing internship. It was a full-time position over the summers and during winter break, and it meant waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m. and bracing myself for “another day at the office.” Which seems cliché—and it is
—but this is the reality of so many middle-class, working Americans. My position wasn’t stimulating. It barely kept me awake (and I was drinking a lot of coffee during undergrad). In fact, I spent a lot of my time in my cubicle reading and teaching myself shorthand.
How is that more valuable, you may ask, than being a member of a sports team? On the surface, this experience may seem like it failed to teach me anything, but it did. I don’t think my brother, who wakes up for early morning track practice every day, knows the difference between that and facing a job you don’t love—eight hours, every single day
—because you need money. It’s a different kind of responsibility, a different kind of dedication. I learned that sometimes I’ll have to do something not because I enjoy it—and not because I don’t have better things to do—but because it’s a necessity.
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Freelancing is a different kind of beast. Hey, it’s Friday! Finally
, two days of freedom—erm, wait. What’s this email asking me if I can proof this batch of articles by Monday? Well, there goes my weekend.
That’s the downside of freelancing: there’s no such thing as long-term planning. “But as a freelancer, can’t you say no?” Well, yes…and no. Freelancing, you learn time management. You learn your personal limitations (and maybe I’m more willing to stretch myself thin than the next person). You learn to balance your reputation and your client’s expectations (reasons you can’t say no) against what is reasonably possible, for both your mental and physical health (reasons you can’t say yes). For example, a few years ago I accepted what was, in retrospect, the largest project I’ve ever taken on. It was the middle of a terrible winter in Boston, and the quick turnaround time was bordering on unfeasible. Then, a few days in, the heat in my apartment went out. I remember sitting at my desk beneath multiple blankets, pouring myself cup after cup of hot tea, feeling
influenza slowly overtake me (and it did).
Learning to say no, or to budget and argue for your needs, is definitely
I’m not saying that all students need to work themselves to the bone (I probably don’t say no enough; I know this about myself) and I do think it’s occasionally valid to say, “No, I have a rigorous academic curriculum” or “No, I’m a D-I athlete.”
Everybody should know the demands of being employed, and I think the best time for this exposure is when you’re in college, when you have classes and athletics to fall back on.
I’m also not saying that work has to be a grueling or mind-numbing experience. Beside that one time when I almost froze in my own apartment, work it just that: work. You do it. It’s there. It’s part of life. You don’t even realize that it’s teaching you to be punctual and reliable and dedicated and pleasant and self-reliant and capable until years later, when you have your “grown up” job and reason to be thankful.
It’s definitely more common to work while in graduate school than college, especially considering the growing number of graduate programs with evening classes catering toward the “working adult.” I can’t pretend that I know how to balance school and work with children (which I don’t have) and family obligations, but I’ve proven, if to nobody but myself (sometimes that’s all that matters), that I’m capable of handling the school/work balance without one suffering for the other.
As an aspiring writer, I do have to wonder if I would already have a draft of a novel completed if I didn’t
have a full-time day job—if I could dedicate more of my day to writing—but there are also different “what ifs” to consider. What if I’d had more debt when I graduated college, or when I eventually finish my graduate degree? What if I didn’t have my current career path (which I set up for myself by working through undergrad) as a backup? What if I’d never had to prepare a professional resume until I was twenty-five years old?
Like with all choice, having worked through college (rather than participated in a handful of campus organizations and bolstering my social calendar, as some friends seemed to do) meant sacrificing other experiences. But I love where I am now—even if that means I’m still working forty hour weeks, taking classes at night, and filling my weekends with homework—because I value each of my mind-numbing and stressful job experiences alike. I feel ahead of my peers in terms of “real world” readiness, and that’s a feeling I’d wish on anyone.