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I’m not one to have regrets. In most situations, I try to learn from my mistakes and move on. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on past choices, or wishing I had done things differently.
However, I have been kicking myself over one thing, and probably will be for the rest of my life.
My parents divorced when I was a senior in college. While many students move away to go to college, my parents moved away from me (We lived in a college town at the time)! With my financial situation in flux, I filed as financially independent on my financial aid forms.
As part of my financial aid package, my school awarded me with a work study position.
What Are Work Studies?
Work studies are part-time employment opportunities for low income students to help offset the costs of their education. The employment can be on or off campus, depending on the school.
A major benefit of work study positions is that the student is paid throughout the course of the year, rather than the stipend being applied directly to tuition as is the case with loans. In this way, work study funds can be used for living expenses, giving the student a lot of flexibility. By taking on work studies, students can lower the amount of loans they need to cover the expenses of their education.
What Kind of Jobs Can You Get?
It really depends on your college or university. Jobs can be on campus or off campus.
On campus jobs typical provide a service to the school. For example, you might help students troubleshoot tech problems in the computer lab, re-shelve books in the school library, or work as a cashier in the student bookstore. You could also clean and maintain lab equipment, tutor other students, or work as a receptionist in one of your college’s academic departments.
Off-campus jobs are usually in partnership with community organizations. For example, the work study I participated in was with America Reads, a national initiative to put college students in elementary school classrooms to offer reading support and to assist teachers. Other off-campus jobs could include administrative assistance in local government agencies, working at a conservation organization, or supporting a food bank.
On-campus and off-campus jobs vary significantly by school so check your specific institution to understand your options.
Work Study Pay
So how much does work study pay? At a minimum, work study positions will pay the federal minimum wage. But in many cases they may pay more, particularly if you go to school with a higher cost of living. The nature of the job may also effect the pay. Again, check the specific offerings of your school to understand what you can earn.
Work studies pay students at least monthly, which make them a nice option to help offset living expenses for the semester. In many cases, funds are deposited directly to the student’s bank account.
Work Study or Part-Time Job?
This is a tough question to answer. There are definite benefits of work study positions, but part-time jobs have their perks too. Both have their positives and their negatives so let’s run through them.
Number of hours
Work studies generally cap the number of hours a student can work per week, often around twenty. The rationale is to ensure students have appropriate time to focus on their studies.
With a part-time job, unless you’re approaching overtime, your hours probably won’t be restricted. This means you can likely earn more at a part-time job because the total number of hours you can work is higher.
However, you still should consider the effect on your studies. Be sure you have enough time to study, participate in extra-curriculars (if you choose), and get sufficient rest.
If you have a work study position, there’s usually nothing preventing you from taking a part-time job as well. So if you hit your max hours on your work study, you can supplement with a part-time job. Just do keep in mind that you’re at college to study, and you need to do well in your classes!
This is a really important factor to consider when trying to determine whether to take a work study position or a part-time job.
Because work study positions are often tied to a college department, it’s easier to draw the connection between a work study and a student’s broader career goals. In my mind, this is one of the biggest benefits of work study.
For example, a work study in a lab will look great on the resume of a science major. Similarly, work study in the campus library will be a boost to the resume of library science students. And I am a strong believer that any admin role is an asset on a resume. As someone who hires junior staff on a regular basis, I can tell you that someone with previous administrative experience will outrank those without every single time.
In many cases, it can be harder to draw a connection between a part-time job and a student’s future career. Jobs in retail and food service may pay more, and there’s nothing wrong with them, but if you’re looking to build your resume and gain valuable experience they don’t have much value add.
Don’t get me wrong – when reviewing resumes I will absolutely consider someone for an internship or entry level position without relevant experience if they have strong academic credentials and leadership experience through extracurricular activities. But if I’m looking at two otherwise equal candidates and someone has related experience and another does not, I’m going to go with the one with relevant experience.
In my mind, the opportunity to gain related experience is one of the biggest benefits of work study positions.
The Stigma of Work Study
So you’ve probably guessed by now that the regret I was talking about that the beginning of this post is that I didn’t take advantage of my work study award. At least, not for all of the years I was eligible.
What finally got me to apply was when I was accepted to do a study abroad in Australia. Plane tickets alone were over $1,000 and I knew I wouldn’t be able to work while I was there. I was in a mad scramble to save every penny I could find to make sure I had enough money while I was away. After all, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I wanted to see and do as much as I could. All that was going to require money.
A lot of assumptions and misconceptions held me back from applying for a work study position earlier. I assumed the only jobs available would be something that I would hate. I imagined myself working in the school cafeteria or handing out towels at the natatorium.
Instead, I ended up participating in the America Reads program and it was amazing. The program placed me in a fourth grade classroom and I loved it. In fact, if I hadn’t been nearly done with my degree, I very likely would have switched to education to become a teacher.
I was also embarrassed that I was funding college myself and that I didn’t have a lot of money at my disposal. Growing up solidly middle-class, this first experience of branding myself as a “poor kid” was jarring. I know this likely sounds totally snobby, but I want to be honest about what held me back from taking advantage of the benefits of work study. I’m going to bet I’m not the only one out there who has struggled from this stigma!
I had this notion in my head that it would be completely obvious to everyone that I participated in a work study, like a giant scarlet “A” on my shirt. And that would bring me shame or embarrassment. So I let those assumptions keep me from taking advantage of all the benefits of work study.
Work Study in Hindsight
Like I said at the beginning, I am not one to hold on to regrets. But not taking advantage of my work study every year I was eligible is still something I am kicking myself over, nearly twenty years later.
Even a couple of thousand dollars a year would have been a huge help when it came to food, utilities, and other expenses. Instead, when I came up short I charged these things to my credit card. I was digging myself out of this hole for several years after graduation.
Now that I’m older and more mature, it’s so much easier to see work studies for what they are: a vehicle to help kids afford a college education. There’s no shame taking on a work study position. In fact, in most cases it’s a smart move. Not only will it make you more financially secure, it often builds your resume and makes you more attractive to hiring managers for future internships and your eventual career. These benefits of work study should give someone pause before brushing their award to the side.
There’s no “work study” badge you need to wear. In most cases, people won’t even know you have a work study. And even if they do, be proud of it! You are taking your financial future into your hands and making smart choices to ensure you will be better off.
Don’t be like me and bring a lot of erroneous assumptions into your work study award. Take advantage of it, and reap the benefits for years to come!