In the Blog
What it Means to be a Working Student
Illustration: Sophie Freedman-Lawson
There is one thing that is never simple: money. As a college or university student, things only become more daunting with tuition invoices, rent, bills, and other income-absorbing expenses. Students often hold part-time jobs to accumulate income during their studies; for low-income students this is often essential. Desperate enough, students sometimes enter into stressful and toxic work environments.
My first job was a paper route with my mother when I was in grade school. I didn’t have a savings account and my profit was $1 a week. I now work two jobs while balancing a full university course load and extracurriculars. When others learn this, I’m often asked “How do you do it? Where do you find the time?” The answer is as simple as “I have to.”
My job throughout high school scheduled me long shifts that extended into midnight. I had to deal with people yelling at me for things I had no control over and managers who did not care. My first on campus job let me do homework while on shift, but I was scolded by my manager for petty things like giving someone directions to a building that were not to his taste. I’ve become used to feeling stressed when at work.
Students from low income households will generally not receive or be able to act on the same opportunities as students from higher income households. This narrative is not new in any way and has been a lived experience for many.
Students are not able to devote copious hours towards productive study when they are required to work up to 24 hours a week while handling a full course load. Not only does this often impact a student’s grade, it also has the ability to deteriorate their mental health. In my experience working 20 hours each week, I have fallen into times of exhaustion and frustration with myself and the amount of hours in a day. Nothing ever felt like enough.
I saw this first hand when my current roommate/ best friend, Maia Kachan - a third year student at the University of Toronto - worked as a barista in Toronto. “I would come from work and physically and emotionally not be able to go out because I was so exhausted from dealing with customers. I worked in an incredibly rich area of the city and felt disrespected by many people. My boss didn’t respect my obligations as a student and consistently asked me to work ten more hours than I was supposed to.”
As a student, minimizing expenses is often at the crux of money worries. I had decided, as have many of my peers, to commute several hours a day to and from school to save money on rent. Commuting also has lasting effects that impact a student’s ability to perform. A report done by the University School of Medicine in Saint Louis and the Cooper Institute in Dallas noted that people who commute 10 miles or more each way per day have a higher tendency towards depression, anxiety and social isolation.
“Working and studying all night made me nervous because I had no sleep and was unsure of how much knowledge I retained” explains third year Ryerson University student Kerry Yelk. “I live downtown Toronto and my rent is fairly expensive, therefore I have to work to pay for it, plus other expenses.”
College and university students are notoriously infamous for living out the “broke student lifestyle” - but being broke as a student is not the same as facing what it means to be broke after school is done. For some, being a student means taking on the brunt of the financial responsibility on their own. Many students have a plethora of student loans and debt, and the aftermath can feel hopeless post-graduation for students who are wholly responsible for the repayment of these loans.
For 2017/2018, the average tuition cost for an undergraduate program in Ontario is $6,571, but that is subject to change depending on the program and institution that one attends. Loans and financial aid are available to students, but are often insufficient. Many student loans and grants expect the student to contribute their own finances to funding tuition and living expenses. OSAP expects students to contribute a minimum of $3,000 to their education on top of the funding that the government provides. This contribution is based off of their calculation regarding a student working throughout the summer months at a part time job and putting away the majority of their funding to be saved towards school.
Sacrifice is a common factor among working students who choose to pursue unique opportunities, such as study-abroad, or student leadership positions. Student leadership positions often offer an honorarium but not nearly enough for students to rely on as a complete source of income. Funding for a study abroad expedition can be partially provided by the school through scholarships, however taking months off to travel hinders on a working student’s ability to earn their $3,000 contribution towards their educational funding. These experiences are valuable, and can allow students to gain experience in fields they’re interested in, and result in possible employment opportunities, however they are not completely accessible to all.
Being a working student does have its upsides. I have felt infinitely more prepared and integrated into the world through the several jobs I have held since I entered the workforce. I am more confident in talking to strangers, have a new sense of initiative, appreciate the value of money and time, and have a strengthened work ethic. Having a part-time job provided me with a certain amount of independence that I craved. However, balancing intensive classes and hours of reading while working during the week is exhausting, without a doubt.
The expectation that students take five courses a semester for four years is taxing. More students are lightening their course load to manage more things external to their studies. The idea that it is possible to be full-time students and also employees, volunteers, and students leaders all while maintaining a healthy well being is unrealistic. It is up to students to speak out for each other. A reduction in tuition rates could relieve students of the need to work long hours during the school year. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)’s Fight the Fees campaign calls for the elimination of all tuition fees, making provincial loans into non-repayable grants, and removing interest on all existing student loans. To join a coalition in your area, CFS encourages students to get involved with their student union.