Guest Post: Working While You’re In School

My name is Ashley and I blog at Writing To Reach You.  When I asked for opportunities to guest blog, Jenn offered up this space.  She’s heading back to school soon and that gave me an idea of what to write about.  So I’ve never gone back to school myself.  I’m actually at an age where it’s weirder that I’ve never left. But, I do have a lot of experience with working while in school and generally living like an independent adult while still being a student.

I work in an academic library where most of the patrons are young college students who basically live in a bubble.  They are not responsible for any of their expenses, they don’t even see their tuition bills, and any money they make working a few hours a week on campus goes to whatever they want.  To be clear, my own life has mostly been puppies and rainbows, but that’s a level of privilege I don’t understand. I’ve worked since I was a teenager and I have always, always been conscious of money.

There were moments in high school, college, and grad school where I was resentful of the bubble people who just got to focus on school without the separate responsibility of working.  Sometimes I was jealous of them and sometimes I thought myself superior to them.  I got by thinking, “Wait until they get out into the real world.”  I was humbled when the real world, which I thought I was already living in, totally knocked me off my feet and I found myself buried in debt.  That’s when I came to think of always working as just a fact of my life and not something that made me better or worse than anyone else.   I have had moments of jealously and resentment since, but I always come back to, “I have to work a lot, and that’s just the way it is, so I better find peace with it.”

I’ve actually gotten a lot out of working while in school.

When I was in high school, my whole life revolved around what happened at school until I got my first real job and this whole separate world opened up to me.  A lot of the people I worked with went to my school, but they were a bit older than me and ran in different (read: cooler) social circles than I did.  We could have walked past each other in the halls a hundred times and we never would have been friends, but sitting together every afternoon in a basement sorting mail gave us an opportunity to connect.  I was living in my own little bubble where most of my friends were these lovely girls who were pretty much exactly like me, and now suddenly I was friends with people who thought differently than I did and needed to work too and even some who occasionally broke rules.  My eyes were opened a bit, and these new friends brought out a different side of me.  School has remained a huge focus in my life, but working has always given me this place to encounter people who live differently.

When I went away to college, there was no question that I would have to get a job.  My mom, who is one of those people who can remember the only two B’s she ever received in school, told me that when she was in nursing school, she actually did worse the one semester where she didn’t work than she did all the semesters that she did work.  I’ve never taken off time from working, but there have been times when I worked less, and while I didn’t do worse than I did semesters where I worked more, I also didn’t do better.   If you think, “Oh, if I just didn’t have to work so much, I would study alllll the time,” you are probably lying to yourself.  Working forces you to develop priorities and learn how to manage your time.  It’s amazing how much you can do when you have to.

After my first two years of grad school, it became obvious to me that I was either going to have to quit school to work full time or figure out how to work full time while staying in school.  I was unwilling to give up on school, so I found a full time job and told myself I was just going to have to figure out how to work and go to school full time at the same time.  I thought I was over that silly entitlement I felt in college, but jealousy did bubble up a few times walking through the library where I worked and seeing all of my classmates there with endless hours to study.  But, you know, the last four years I’ve spent working full time while being a PhD student have not just given me a heads up on retirement savings, they have taught me a lot about how much I can do and how in control of my future I am.  Instead of letting my debt determine my future, I worked 15 hour days for a year and a half and paid it all off.  That experience changed my life and I wouldn’t give it up for all the hours spent studying in peace.

There are certainly disadvantages to working a lot when you’re in school.  I sometimes felt like I wasn’t really getting the college experience, because I had so much outside responsibility.  I never had the time or financial freedom to accept unpaid internships, and I felt like I could never take the time off to study abroad. I have tried to make up for these experiences when possible (I got more of the “college experience” my first two years of grad school and I’m traveling now), and otherwise I focus on the important experiences I gained while working.  I can’t really imagine myself without them.

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