The first time I heard the warning was probably in POL111.
The professor explained to the class that having a job during university was a no-no. He cited the number of hours a student is expected to spend on school: six hours per class per week, for an average of 30 hours a week—almost a full-time job. To him it was simple: university requires serious commitment, and you’re not giving yourself the chance to capitalize on your opportunity if you keep up the barista shift on the side.
Alas, I, as well as many of you, I’m sure, did not take his advice. From the Blind Duck to a restaurant in Sherwood Forest Plaza to our very own UTM bookstore, I have experienced my fair share of student employment. The past month has actually been the only time I haven’t been employed during university. Personally, the experience has mostly filled me with regret for not taking the opportunity earlier, but unfortunately, it wasn’t always an option. At the age of 22, I consider that OSAP has been very generous to me (they no longer account for your parents financially after 21), but it wasn’t always that way.
Though my professor did not endorse working during school, there are many opportunities available for students through Work-Study programs. The attraction of these jobs is that they prioritize hiring U of T students, they have controlled hours (usually 10–12 a week), and they’re often on campus.
In my experience, having a job was usually manageable, until that dreaded time of year at the end of the semester. You know, that time of year when you have about 270% of your total grades due within the span of a week or two. Or you may recognize it better as that time of year where the closest relationship you have is with the person who pours your coffee and the inside view of a carrel desk in the silent zone of the library. That time of year, my destiny often felt determined by how generous my manager might be about allowing some time off.
An August article in The Guardian was titled “One in seven students work full-time while they study”, and it cited the equally astonishing figure that 59% of students report working (full- or part-time) while pursuing their studies. And according to the article, the rate is on the rise. But how impactful is it to have a job during the semester?
To gain insight on how employment can affect students, I spoke to UTM alumna Lindsey Middleton, who graduated in 2013. Middleton was a theatre and drama studies specialist, potentially one of the school’s most time-demanding programs, split between UTM and Sheridan. She estimates that she spent about 40 hours of the week in class plus 10 more in rehearsals. If that wasn’t enough, she was also a residence don and estimates that about 10 hours a week are put aside for her job. That totals about 60 hours a week!
So how does a student handle that much? The answer is sacrifice.
“Yes, I made sacrifices, though I tried to make as few as possible. Seeing my family was the biggest as I could never go home on weekends, which was always hard to deal with,” says Middleton.
I also spoke to Afra Yousaf, a fourth-year digital enterprise management specialist who works at the UTM bookstore. In addition to her courses, Yousaf works about 10 hours a week. Surprisingly, she admits that she could have gotten by without working thanks to family support. She keeps her position for two reasons: “It’s good experience and I like having responsibility, but more so it helps keep me structured,” she says. “I do better when I have plan to follow and working actually helps me manage my time.”
In my own work experience, it was also nice to have a social sphere outside of class in which I could feel like I was accomplishing something—my worth wasn’t entirely defined by marks. But for Yousaf, like Middleton, the extra responsibility came with extra sacrifice. “The biggest sacrifice I make for work is time—I can’t always go out with friends because I need the extra time to work on school. I also haven’t had time to gain experience in other fields through volunteer work,” she says.
For Middleton, the time sacrifices meant gaining experience and skills that would help her with future opportunities. “I don’t regret anything, because your past choices make you who you are now, but there were definitely many days where the amount I was doing was not healthy physically or mentally, which resulted with me being very unhappy. I could do it all, but I didn’t enjoy it all,” she says.
“Now I don’t push myself so hard. I may not be able to meet every deadline or go to every outing, but I’m choosing what is important and focusing on that. It’s all about finding balance.”
Yousaf didn’t feel much differently. When asked if she has ever regretted working while being a student, she said no. “Sometimes I want to blame work for my grades or not getting an assignment done as early as I wanted, but that’s my fault, not work’s,” she says. “Having a job has been worth it for the skills I’ve learned.”
It’s important to note that both Middleton and Yousaf worked only a few hours a week—not to say they weren’t busy in other areas of their lives—and this isn’t a possibility for all of us. Many students have to work more hours a week to maintain their lifestyle and keep up with tuition payments or rent.
While discussing this with my own roommate, Meghan McErlain, a fourth-year biology specialist, she cited the effect that work has had on her academic career. McErlain has hoped to attend medical school since childhood, but unlike many students, she has had to pay for school out of her own pocket. This time sacrifice has often meant less time available to study, and in medical science a few decimals of GPA can make a great difference.
Working will always require sacrifice. What you have to decide is if it’s worth the experience. Is it worth not having to make that call home for some parental charity, or for that new outfit for a formal you may only wear once or twice? Whatever you choose, take a note from Middleton: don’t regret it. If there’s one thing you probably don’t have time for right now, it’s regret, so learn from your decisions or take pride in the gains from your sacrifices.