June 28, 2022

WISE-ROJAS | The Life of a Working College Student

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I find it almost ironic that I’m writing about working students while technically at work right now, on a bus to go pick up students in NYC at 4 a.m. for the Pre-Collegiate Summer Scholars Program. I don’t know why I didn’t think about this column sooner. Cornell has hundreds of job opportunities for students. The question is, which students receive the benefits? In today’s world, working college students deserve more credit than they get. It is critical to acknowledge the privilege gap between working and non-working Cornell students because the picture-perfect, stereotypical American college experience is itself a social construct. 

Working Cornell students have to deal with the same things that non-working Cornell students do. For instance, each one of us has a social battery. However, some drain faster than others, and for working students, their batteries are often drained by their daily schedule alone. Here’s an example of my schedule from the past academic year:

  • Wake up around 8 or 9.
  • Get food.
  • Go to classes.
  • Get lunch.
  • Have some time to study.
  • Work at my office job at the Latino Studies Program center.

By the time I’m done with all that, it’s already nearly dinner time. My social battery is drained, and I need what’s left of it for homework. On the weekends, I would wake up, read and be at Mann Cafe for my manager job by 11 a.m., working most of the day, then returning to the dorm by 5 or 6 p.m. 

My schedule doesn’t sound horrible. It might sound very productive and manageable to some. I love my jobs, coworkers and opportunities. Some days I walk past the clock tower and count my blessings. This is everything a younger me would have dreamed of. However, repeating this schedule leaves little room for social life and is a recipe for burnout and academic stress. Sometimes, I would look at people who could take fancy trips for spring break, not having a single concern when taking out their debit card, and feel a twinge of jealousy.

I’m not a party person, but sometimes I envy people who throw parties and go out frequently. I wish I had the time to, but I have to think about what time I should go to sleep so I can get enough hours in before my next shift. Going to Cornell made me realize that although there are a good amount of students in my position, there are plenty who aren’t. Some students work but don’t think twice before calling out a shift to study, travel or just call out because they’re tired. 

Most students who work during college are divided by a social inequity barrier created by race, income and other minority labels, often getting lower grades (because their time and energy go toward financial stability over academic stability) and are prevented from working jobs that advance their passions, instead working jobs to put food on the table and pay their tuition. Cornell provides the rare opportunity for students from all social classes to pursue their passions after graduation. The Ivy label is an equalizer — to an extent. Some offices at Cornell, like the Latino Studies Program, can only afford to employ students on work-study for a limited number of hours because of a lack of funding. I love that job — I wish it could be my full-time job — but there are restrictions on the number of hours that I can work because of the lack of funding. Hence, I got another job. What’s even crazier is that this is now my norm: falling into the rhythm of two jobs, other extracurriculars and a full course load. I’m proud of myself, but I have plenty of moments where I stop to question my norm compared to the socially-expected norm of other college students.

You can see the privilege gap within the Cornell student body when looking at their employers and their socioeconomic status. Suppose a student is only working to gain experience. In that case, they don’t have to worry about which jobs pay the most, how work-study functions, or why they might have to take on another job if they want to remain financially stable while building their professional career. Sometimes, I wonder how some people can afford to go to Cornell without financial aid or without working one job at the very least. 

Something that working students gain, on the other hand, is independence. But does this independence come in exchange for long hours and chronic burnout? I love being independent and reliant on myself, but I will admit that it gets lonely sometimes. I have nearly a thousand unread text messages. I simply don’t have the time, even if I feel lonely. I value in-person communication or voice calling much more than texting; it’s because I need to be in the presence of another person willing to devote social energy to me as a method to recharge my battery a bit, not talking to a single-sided void like Instagram.

College is supposed to be the “time of your life” with moments you will never regret or forget. Yes, I’ve had some of those moments, but I don’t think that my college experience consists of all these events. 

Dear working college students: I’m here to say that the “perfect” college experience is a social construct based on the typical white student with the means to pay to live off-campus. Hence, there is no need to blame yourself if your college experience feels more like adulting. Ultimately, you will be more prepared for the “real world” than students who don’t know how to write a resume or interview for a job. 

Dear working college students: your efforts do not fall on deaf ears, and you are doing great, even if no one has told you that.

Daniela Wise-Rojas is a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. She currently serves as Assistant Dining Editor on the 140th Editorial Board. Anything But MunDANIties runs periodically this summer.