“Do you have to have a job?”
It was a strange question. In fact, I had never been asked it before. It came from a well-intentioned undergraduate adviser. We were discussing my academic progress and career plans, and he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t spending valuable time and energy on an unnecessary job. However, my answer was obvious: “Well, if I had the privilege not to work, I wouldn’t have a job.”
I had heard similar remarks from several professors in undergrad and graduate school, and to a degree I understood their logic. In order to succeed academically, they knew that it was best to dedicate as much time as possible to school. After all, the hope is that you would land a job in your chosen field, and why waste time working in retail if you wanted to be a teacher, reporter, etc.? Unfortunately, as a student from a working-class background, there was no choice involved. I had even heard one professor imply that students only work so they can have “beer money.” Now, yes, students do spend money on beer. And well, so do most professors. But besides the fact that having a social life is perfectly normal, beer is not the source of most students’ lack of funds. Considering that tuition increases are outpacing inflation, and we are in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I’m shocked that the increasing cost of living coupled with relatively widespread economic hardship needs to be explained. Keep in mind: I went to two state schools, not Ivy League ones, so it was widely known that the student body was not made up of trust fund babies.
Even when I was in undergrad prior to the collapse, I was never economically privileged enough to forego a job (hey, you have to pay the bills somehow!). I think that some professors assume that students should take out more loans for living expenses. I actually had to do this during my master’s degree because what I made working 30-40 hours per week was not enough to pay tuition and rent. It was the only way I could afford to live, and trust me: I didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle. I didn’t even have a car in a city where public transportation is limited and sometimes unreliable. Perhaps they think we should rely on mommy and daddy for assistance, but for lot of us, mommy and daddy are barely surviving themselves, and don’t have the ability to support their young adult children through college.
So with the logic of “your career is more important than your job,” I suppose even taking out more loans would make sense. But again, this is operating under the assumption that you will actually get a job that pays you well enough in your chosen field after graduation. Sadly, a college degree is no longer a guarantee for a job in your field, much less a job that pays a living wage. Like many of my peers, I have been forced to work in the service and clerical industries to help support myself. So not only are we earning low wages, but we are also now paying back student loans. The student loan crisis and the recession are widely known and discussed, so I’m still shocked when I hear these insensitive comments about student employment.
I’m not suggesting that the reality of students having to work while going to school implies that academic standards should be lowered, or that professors shouldn’t expect students to prioritize school. However, I think professors should become more familiar with the economic realities of their students. Again, a lot of this advice about not working is given with the best of intentions, but as a student, it made me feel isolated and misunderstood. It increased the common sense of shame that working-class students feel about their economic status. The anthology This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class details the common psychological predicament working-class students find themselves in when they enter the largely middle to upper middle-class domain of higher education.
So as a professor, I always approach my students with sensitivity and understanding when they explain the stresses of balancing work and school. Let’s hope this becomes the norm, so working students aren’t further discouraged from pursuing higher education.