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When I was applying to college, I remember reading the following quote “Studying, Socializing and Sleep: Most students choose the first two.” While I understand that almost all undergraduates struggle with time management, I’ve found that some students have a different equation to consider. Some must decide between four options. They have to consider student work before choosing between the other three.
I face that choice on a day-to-daily basis. When I arrived on campus freshman year, I immediately began looking for a job. I knew I needed one. I was lucky enough to have received generous financial aid from Yale, and part of that package was on-campus work. I was naive — I thought I would find a job right away, that the money would go straight into my pocket and that all my financial problems would evaporate.
And so, during my first semester at Yale, I worked two jobs. One in Sterling Memorial Library, stacking books at 9 a.m. three times a week, and the second in the Admissions Office. As I clocked up over 15 hours a week at work, I was pleased with the paycheck, but not as pleased with my schedule. I was exhausted, frustrated and behind on school work. I had stopped working at the library by December.
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As I spoke to Grace Chiang ’15 in Bass Cafe, I immediately began to relate to her day-to-day Yale experience. Like me, she is an international student who, at one point, worked 20 hours a week. As she described her busy schedule, I thought I fully understood her circumstances.
Then, she told me a story that I didn’t want to believe. Chiang began her junior year as an economics and history double major. However, this May, she will only graduate with a degree in economics. Why? One professor thought she was working too many hours.
In one of her recent history seminars, the professor distributed homework assignments on Monday to be submitted on Wednesday — the three days Chiang needed to work. When she approached the professor, asking if she could receive the assignments earlier in the week, her professor dismissed her need to work three jobs. The professor asked if Chiang was mentally stable and told her she should consider withdrawing from Yale in order to “reevaluate her priorities.”
“Are you cracked? That’s what she said to me,” Chiang remembered. The professor then threatened to report her to her residential college dean.
And this was not the only time someone asked Chiang if she wanted to withdraw for financial reasons. When Chiang asked her dean for advice about paying a required fee, the dean presented her with withdrawal forms instead of the support she needed.
Chiang is not alone.
Sara Miller ’16, a former photography editor for the News, said having five jobs has undoubtedly affected her academic experience. She believes that students from low-income backgrounds may not have the same preparation that some of their peers have, meaning they sometimes can benefit from more hours of studying or tutoring. She told me that she was expecting to be behind when she came to Yale, but that she could not have anticipated how behind she would actually be.
Michaela Johnson ’17 and I became friends when we realized that our paths to Yale were very similar — we had both experienced the consequences of being “low-income.” We both initially struggled to find a path at Yale that followed our academic ambitions, as well as our desire to pursue time-intensive extracurricular activities. The main problem, though, was remaining financially stable.
Johnson said her most difficult academic experiences occur at the beginning of the semester, when some professors fail to recognize that she cannot spend hundreds of dollars on course packets and textbooks. “I don’t have my textbooks for the semester yet,” she told me three weeks into the term. “It’s awkward to explain to a professor why you don’t have the book yet.”
While Johnson has not been asked to withdraw from Yale, she recounted a number of times when professors and advisors have asked why she works so many hours. The answer she gives every time: “I have to.”
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A new Yale College Council task force on financial aid addresses the problems of Chiang, Johnson and many other students. It recently published a report that revealed one scary statistic: 56 percent of survey participants claimed working long hours “adversely affected” their college experience.
“Adversely” is a strong word and not necessarily how I would describe my own experience. Right now, I work for a minimum of eight hours a week, sometimes a lot more, at a job for which I’m grateful. Not everyone is as lucky, and going to work can sometimes be a chore. According to the YCC report, students in this financial bracket could take one or two more classes per semester if they didn’t spend 12 hours a week fulfilling their student effort expectation.
Johnson didn’t say she would take another class. She said she would catch up on sleep.
When I asked YCC President Michael Herbert ’16 about the report, he posed an interesting question, “To what extent do we want students from poorer economic backgrounds to have [their time] constrained by work obligations?”
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said he does recognize the limitations put on students who have to work but added that the ultimate decisions about budget are both beyond his control and also encompass many larger questions. Holloway said using student employees in different “important jobs” on campus — for example, in laboratories and libraries — helps contribute to running the University efficiently. Students are “indispensable” in ensuring that the university stays running, he said.
However, several students told me that work has sometimes kept them from the opportunities that led them to Yale. While they might be “indispensable” to Holloway and the University, some feel that they are not able to contribute to campus culture in a meaningful way.
For example, students said that working so many hours prevented them from obtaining leadership roles they otherwise would wanted. In some cases, they said they felt cheated by a system favoring those who don’t have to balance extracurriculars with both school and employment. Some students believe that their peers with prominent positions on campus have a financial privilege that is not representative of the student body. This is because these positions demand a very sizable time commitment.
For instance, current president of the Yale International Relations Association Alessandra Powell ’16 does not currently have a job. She said holding her position while also working would be possible, “but not a great experience.”
Herbert does not hold a student job either. He devotes, on average, 16 to 20 hours a week to his YCC presidency. While he noted that he is a member of NROTC, which pays a generous monthly stipend and requires a similar work commitment, he said “there is no way I [also] would be able to add an on campus job.”
Last year, Miller ran for YCC president. In an opinion article she published in the YDN, she wrote that she would have to take out a loan if elected, in order to satisfy the $3,350 self-help portion of her financial aid package. Chiang said that many of her friends on financial aid have never been able to hold a leadership position in an on-campus organization.
“Yale promises an equal opportunity when you get here, and that simply isn’t the case,” she told me recently.
Over the course of the coming semester, Herbert and the rest of the YCC Task Force will continue working with University administrators. Herbert told me that the discussions have been “terrific” so far, and that he hopes to share good news with students before the end of the year.
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Still, even though many working students are frustrated with the system in place, not everyone has had a negative experience with student employment. In fact, some students have gained important experience from their jobs, including professional connections and skills. Some jobs allow for academic research. Some students can mentor others in their field.
My experience working in an office with adults is a nice change of pace in a student-centric day. It’s a real job in a real office, and my performance can have real consequences for the staff who work there full time. Yes, the job can sometimes involve menial work or manual labor, but then, my post-graduation job probably won’t be that glamorous either. As a freshman, I was able to meet upperclassmen, make some really good friends and, by the end of the year, I had a new, unexpected confidence.
Justin Schuster ’15 spoke with similar enthusiasm when telling me about his three jobs on campus. He is an Arabic tutor, he writes up events for the Macmillan Center and he may have served you that last coffee as a barista at Bass Café. Due to the variety of these tasks, he said he has no problems managing the workload. And, for students who think managing employment and student leadership impossible, he serves as a counter-example. Last year, he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Politic and has also managed a conference for YIRA.
Some students even find jobs that align with their professional interests. To Billy Cavell ’17, who wishes to pursue a career in acting, working as an usher at the Yale Repertory Theater also allows him to meet students in the Yale School of Drama who can offer advice. While he sometimes spends 19 hours a week giving out programs, he does not think it has hindered his college experience in any way.
Enjoying a student job can help some of the problems to dissipate. When midterms come around and tensions rise, I am confident that Cavell and Schuster will remain satisfied with employment. It’s not everyone’s story, but it is one that we can aspire to.
* * *
When Johnson and I inevitably get dinner one day next week, we will both complain that the days are too short. Twenty-four hours aren’t enough. Adding a campus job into the “Studying, Socializing and Sleep” equation is no easy task, and we may be the busiest people we each know. However, I doubt either of us would be comfortable with letting one view of campus culture stop us from succeeding. Each of the students I spoke with conveyed their determination and conviction to ensure that the Yale education they were promised was the Yale education they are going to receive.
“People just don’t talk about this problem,” Chiang said. I think it may be time.