Column: Working for spending money is different than to stay in college

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Column: Working for spending money is different than to stay in college

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Brittany Mendez, opinion editor

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The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 43 percent of undergraduate students are employed and nearly 20 percent of those students work full-time. Given the rising cost of tuition in America, it’s no surprise that many college students work while attending school. However, the motivations behind students’ employment are strongly correlated to their demographic, as low-income minorities tend to work longer hours in more labor-intensive positions. 

When I began college, I did not plan to work because I was under the impression that my financial aid package would cover everything I needed. However, after my first semester in college I realized I needed a job to cover expenses outside of tuition such as textbook costs and daily living expenses. Before attending Northeastern, I went to a small liberal arts college where my only job opportunities were on-campus. The hours for these positions were limited; however, I was able to hold as many jobs as I could handle. Fortunately, I was paid to be a student senator and copy edit for the school’s newspaper, which aligned with my career goals. But I also held positions less relevant to my career path for the additional income. 

I became a waitress the summer before transferring to Northeastern, so I was qualified to work in a more fast-paced restaurant in Boston. I realized I could earn significantly more as a waitress than any other position I qualified for as a full-time college student. During my first semester at NU, I usually worked over 30 hours per week. Most weekends I worked the Friday night shift, then Saturday morning until 2 a.m., then again for the Sunday morning shift, which is nearly 24 hours in three days.

I was making the most money I ever had while in school and for the first time, I felt financially secure as a college student. However, with this financial security came damaging impacts on my academic and social life.

I was able to maintain this lifestyle my first semester because I was not involved in many extracurriculars and my course load was not particularly challenging that semester. However, the next semester I started to get more involved with things on campus and enrolled in more difficult classes. I was forced to reduce my work schedule, and eventually went to a different restaurant because I was treated unfairly by my managers, as many waitstaffs are.

Working conditions in the service industry, especially as a server, can have severe impacts on their mental and physical health. However, many students are attracted to these jobs because of the pay. Georgetown University’s Center on Education in the Workforce conducted research revealing low-income minorities disproportionately work more hours in jobs that do not necessarily advance their career goals. Higher income students can survive off working fewer hours, for little to no pay, which puts them at an advantage. This privilege comes with many benefits such as more time to study and the availability to join more extracurriculars while building their resumes. 

Many low-income students face the dilemma of choosing a job that will help them afford college in order to graduate over studying longer or joining an extracurricular that better prepares them for their careers. In reality, it’s a simple yet upsetting decision because their job must be a priority at the expense of their grades or opportunities to advance their professional endeavors. It is heartbreaking that low-income students must sacrifice so much to attend college, but cannot dedicate their full attention to their education.

It was extremely frustrating for me to see some of my peers not understand how privileged they were to not have to work. While those who worked purely to buy luxuries tended to be more understanding, they still usually lacked appreciation that working was just that: a luxury.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have understanding professors who granted me extensions due to my work hours; however, I know many low-income students who suffer the consequences of working demanding hours. My hope is that low-income students become more comfortable with sharing their circumstances with professors, who in turn are more understanding of their situations. As for my peers, I ask that you don’t pass judgement on students who are struggling and be grateful for the privilege you have of being able to fully immerse yourself in your education.