By Heather Steffen, Chelsea Brandwein, Nastacia Schmoll, and Erika Carlos
Their last day on campus, students all look the same. Black robes processing into a gym, through a stadium, across a dais, tassels swinging. A sea of smiling parents and bored siblings, phones held aloft, bracing to fight for a table at a local restaurant with almost hysterical patience and bonhomie. When students graduate, all that separate them are tiny differences — summa versus magna, a BS or a BA. It’s as though college were some ritual of purification that could wash off class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, and family, leaving only the graduate, an immaculate figure in black.
But under those billowing robes walk people who have taken very different paths to the commencement stage. In the 21st century United States, college does not erase differences. Instead, the U.S. higher education system too often functions as a multiplier or amplifier of economic and social inequalities.
Over the past year, the All Worked Up Project team has been studying the roles work can play in perpetuating inequality and shaping the college experience for students at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We interview student workers about why they work, what kinds of jobs they’ve held, their employment conditions, and how working during college affects their academic, social, and family lives. The stories they tell are complex, and no two are alike. There is, it turns out, no single college experience.
Yet, as composition scholar Rebecca Brittenham points out, “in the current language of academic success — ‘retention,’ ‘time to degree,’ and (most ironically) ‘workplace readiness’ — the multidimensional realities of students’ actual work experiences are often rendered invisible or obscured through a narrative of interference.” In talk about higher education, work appears as an obstacle in the way of the unfortunate student who can’t assemble a financial aid package big enough to cover the cost of attendance. Work is an interference, a detour or impediment, in what would otherwise be a smooth voyage through the institution. From this perspective, any deviation from the “typical college experience” looks like an anomaly, despite the fact that the majority of today’s students work during college.
In what follows, we profile four interviewees from All Worked Up: A Project about Student Labor. They represent the spectrum of student workers we have encountered so far, and their stories highlight the complex entanglements of work, school, activism, family, and friends that they navigate in the pursuit of economic and personal stability now and for the future.
Kevin: “I Never Ask for Money”
Kevin was given four rules when he left for college. Number one, no grades below a B. Number two, no pregnancies. Number three, no STDs. Number four, no drugs. If he followed the rules, his father would pay his tuition and rent, and provide an allowance for food and transportation. The rules have worked.
Kevin has enjoyed financial stability throughout his college career. He receives no government aid and has not taken out student loans. Kevin estimates his tuition and housing cost approximately $25,000 a year. While Kevin appreciates his father’s financial support, he would rather not be subjected to his four big rules and the other pressures that come with dependence. “I’m glad to be graduating early so I can be off of his paycheck and off of his say,” Kevin said.
To become financially self-sufficient as early as possible, Kevin grew accustomed to taking a course load of 20-21 units (five or six courses) every quarter. He graduated in December of 2016 — two quarters earlier than his cohort — with a degree in Economics and Accounting and a plan to start full-time at Ernst & Young in July 2017. Asked why he majored in accounting, he explains, “Benjamin Franklin said, ‘There’s two things that are sure in life, one is death and one is taxes.’ That’s one of the reasons why I picked [taxes and accounting], for stability.”
Since graduating, Kevin has been living in the beachside town of Isla Vista, adjacent to UCSB, and working as a driver for Uber and Lyft. He refers to driving for Uber and Lyft as a “side hustle” like his other ventures during college — buying and selling motorcycles, working as a cello tutor, and playing music at weddings. Work, for Kevin, has been a way to avoid asking for more handouts from his father. “Any time that I’m able to work,” he told us, “I’d rather do that than just asking for money. I never ask for money for anything that’s pleasure-related, I always work for that.”
Throughout college, Kevin embraced the instability of the gig economy in his side hustles. “Hustles, I feel, are just little opportunities that come your way and you seize them. Little gigs drop into my lap and I take them,” he said. “I feel like [with] Uber and Lyft, the salary is the biggest perk. I mean, I’m making upper twenties an hour. Any job on campus can be around minimum wage. So that’s like double minimum wage, and driving’s not hard, right? What isn’t there to love about that?”
Asked about his plans for the future, Kevin was certain about his path. Once he starts at Ernst & Young, he intends to work for a few years before pursuing an MBA, which EY has promised to pay for. By age 30, he wants to start his own business and invest in real estate, and he hopes to retire by age 40 or 50. “It’s always good to go into something with a plan,” he said. “Plan B, C, D, E all the way as far as you can manage.”
To see his plan through, Kevin recognizes that he must achieve independence and earn his way to a new form of stability. “The meaning of being a man…is to be able to support a family. To defend my honor as a man, I want to be able to put bread on the table and be guaranteed to put bread on the table.”
Elizabeth: “College the Mexican Way”
“I did college the Mexican way,” Elizabeth reflected when we spoke to her last fall, “You had to hustle, and you’re expected to do it…You are coming from an underrepresented background [and so] you have to work incredibly more.” Elizabeth grew up in a Mexican-American, low-income, single-parent household and had to work through high school to help support her family. She saw how people “from places that are underfunded and education that is underfunded” had to work harder to be successful, and this discrepancy motivated her to attend college.
To make ends meet at UCSB, Elizabeth held more than 15 different positions and played many roles. She worked at the dining commons, at a theater, on the Associated Students Production Board, in a legal office, and as a barista, a waitress, a bartender, and a translator. She changed jobs as her class schedules changed and new opportunities came up, often working more than one job at a time.
Elizabeth told us that each job “was a means to an end, a means to survive.” She worked because she “didn’t want to be so in debt,” wanted to help family out at home, and “needed to work if [she] was going to try to eat.” By her senior year, Elizabeth was working 30-40 hours a week on top of volunteering and studying. Despite the long hours, she described college as “probably the most stable I had ever been. 30 to 40 hours didn’t seem too bad to me.” For Elizabeth, college was one chapter in a life of work, rather than a gateway to employment. “High school was a lot of work and AP classes. I slept less in high school than I did in college. I think my background and working really determined my success. It made it so my transition here wasn’t even that hard.” But her experience has been a mixed blessing.
Even considering her many jobs, after graduation Elizabeth ended up $11,000 in debt. And despite all the hard work she put into school, including participation in research and taking upper-division seminars, she got a 3.0 GPA, because she sometimes had to miss class for work. Many students would be thrilled with that number, but Elizabeth doesn’t feel like her GPA is the “greatest indicator” of success for her. Since graduating, Elizabeth is “trying to gear more of my [activities] to things that I’m passionate for and actually work in those fields” related to her degree in public policy, but she still holds multiple unrelated jobs so she can pay off her debt within two years.
Asked what her next big goals are, Elizabeth said she went to college because “I wanted to help people who came from low-income backgrounds…or people who were of Latino descent.” She’s starting at home. When her younger brothers get to college, Elizabeth has vowed, they will experience the financial stability she never had: “I tell them, ‘If you’re going to go to college, don’t work if you don’t want to, because I’ve got you’…. You learn so much being [at college], but you also want to make it better for people like yourself.”
Michael: “Picking Up the Pieces”
One year after he was supposed to graduate, Michael still isn’t sure how he will finish paying for his spring classes. He is $1,500 short.
The son of a preschool teacher who fled political persecution in 1980s Guatemala and an Army veteran who worked two jobs — at UPS and Cal Lutheran University — until he passed away several years ago, Michael’s family is his first priority. When he talks about his parents, he looks proud. Michael knows how his mother’s life was shaped by the conflicts in Central America, why his father left the Mormon faith and then the military, and what a union is for. He speaks with confidence about his values and political views. Most people who meet Michael would never guess that his college experience has been defined as much by instability and insecurity as by commitment and engagement.
Michael lacks a financial safety net, so even a minor accident can pose almost insurmountable obstacles. His freshman year, he was hit by a car while biking to give a class presentation, lost several teeth, and wound up entangled in a long legal battle to get his medical bills paid. “I had a million things on my mind, and I saw my teeth on the floor, and I was just picking up the pieces like I could put it back together,” he remembered.
Two years later, bedbugs invaded his apartment, and, after reporting them to his landlord, Michael came home to a 30-day eviction notice. He cleaned out his apartment, took his winter quarter finals, and lived out of his car in neighborhood parking lots for the next month. “During that experience you see a little more of the world,” Michael explained, “You fall asleep in different random spots where you won’t get bugged, and you see other people asleep in their cars. You see their clothes piled up in the back, and you see their situation.” Michael had joined the significant percentage of American students who experience homelessness and food insecurity during college.
As a student, Michael has done door-to-door sales for a house painting company (“a pyramid scheme”), helped on a local political campaign, unloaded trucks and stocked shelves at Sports Authority, raised money as a telemarketer with Telefund, and interned at an engineering high school and at AFSCME. His resume looks like most — a mix of service and retail jobs, punctuated by a few career-related opportunities.
Like many Chicanx/Latinx students we interview, he sends money home rather than accepting parental support. When his father fell ill, Michael, then a high-schooler in the San Fernando Valley, offered to give up college, stay home, and help his mother “hold the house.” She made him go, but the mortgage followed Michael to Santa Barbara. The mortgage “is still something I need to go home and take care of, so there’s a house for my mom when she retires,” Michael told us, “There’s work that needs to be done one way or another, even if it means slowing down on things that I want to do.” He is majoring in chemical engineering, a field for which he has talent and which he knows will pay well, but not one that gets him excited.
Michael’s real passions are education and social justice. He grew up spending summer days in his mother’s preschool classroom and long evenings at his father’s campus desk job, where his father, a steward for the Teamsters, handled grievances against UPS during slow times. “I view education as a form of empowerment,” Michael explained, “There’s empowerment in learning your history as opposed to the white history you’re given in high school.” If he can find that $1,500, and if his summer is accident free, Michael will be back at UCSB next fall.
Adriana: “Just as Capable”
Along with the other 1.4 million undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children, Adriana is part of the first generation of Dreamers. Formally named the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, President Obama first introduced the Dream Act to Congress in 2001 as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth, but it was never passed into law. Without a federal law to define their status, undocumented students like Adriana lack access to resources and opportunities that others take for granted.
Born in Mexico, Adriana was brought into the U.S. when she was 12 years old, right after completing the 7th grade. Her access to higher education depends on scholarships, parental contributions, and the California Dream Act of 2012, which provides her with state grants and loans to fund her education. However, having missed one of the eligibility criteria, Adriana is unable to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, barring her from the ability to work legally. Without a work permit, Adriana’s pursuit of her dream life and career is at a significant disadvantage.
Comparing herself to her friends, Adriana explains that they “start off about the same, since we get similar financial aid, but from there everything else changes and many more obstacles keep piling up [against me], so I keep staying behind.” Like other students, Adriana acknowledges that she must find opportunities to build the experience and networks to be competitive in the labor market after graduation. “I know I need to get internships or work experience, but many positions are not open to undocumented students without DACA,” Adriana said. “Even if there are paid internships available, I will do the work unpaid just so I can get that experience.”
To compensate for her inability to obtain paid, resume-building opportunities, Adriana assumes leadership roles within campus organizations. “I don’t have what other students have in terms of work experience, but I have learned a lot about leadership and management through my work in IDEAS [an organization of undocumented students], Associated Students [student government], and other organizations,” said Adriana. Her biggest struggle is revealing her undocumented status to the contacts she’s made in her field. “I am just as capable as other students, so I only disclose my status when I feel like it is necessary,” Adriana explained.
Despite these experiences and her double major in Environmental Studies and Spanish, Adriana remains uncertain about a future in which she is not allowed to work. “After going through four years of college I just don’t know how I would feel about taking a job that is not related to what I studied,” Adriana told us. “If I start working at a factory then was my college education worth all these loans? What are they for if I am not even able to get a job I worked so hard to pursue?”
Contrary to the interference narrative’s representation of work as a roadblock, the All Worked Up Project is revealing that work isn’t the main challenge students face. Employment during college is now the majority experience, an expected facet of student life, whether as a strategy for learning, resume building, or paying the bills. The factors that interfere with the “typical college experience” derive instead from deep socioeconomic inequalities that pre-exist college. Our interviewees list among their biggest challenges: financial insecurity during college and looming debt afterward; lack of a safety net for emergencies; the responsibility to take care of their families (financially or emotionally); difficulty balancing the competing demands and expectations of school, work, and post-graduation planning; and insufficient knowledge of university support resources or no time to take advantage of them.
Asked how they tackle these challenges, our interviewees report relying on the flexibility of employers who understand their priorities, resident advisors, information from orientation sessions, and financial aid. Their survival tactics are ad hoc, cobbled together from whatever resources are most convenient and accessible, rather than based on an overall plan for academic success. Conspicuously absent from the list are faculty involvement and structured opportunities to reflect and integrate the many dimensions of life as a student worker. This observation prompted us to begin exploring how faculty and universities can better enact solidarity with student workers.
Some initial ideas can be drawn from research on faculty support of student activists. In a major study of the topic, higher education scholar Adrianna Kezar found that faculty partnerships with student activists work best when the interaction is long term and involves both highly-visible support, like attendance at protests, and less-visible help behind the scenes. Faculty can mentor students through the mundane details of making change (or achieving work-life-study balance) — drafting emails, communicating with administrators and legislators, or practicing self-care. In “common and everyday experiences” like these, Kezar contends, “students have the most opportunity for student development because the experiences occur regularly, provide ongoing opportunities to practice activism, and teach students the everyday skills of being a good citizen.”
The problem with mentorship as a solidarity action is that it requires faculty to devote additional out-of-class, uncompensated and unrecognized time and labor to student support, even though the majority of college teachers are themselves contingent workers, and service and mentorship duties are already disproportionately borne by women and faculty of color. These concerns arose at a workshop on “Enacting Solidarity with Student Workers and Students in Debt” that we facilitated at the Cultural Studies Association’s annual meeting in May. There, the discussion turned to how faculty might make small, but meaningful, alterations to their course design and policies to enable student workers to more easily manage their time and finances. Participants mentioned being more flexible about due dates, opening lines of communication by explaining the purposes of office hours, offering to meet via Skype, and ordering books that are affordable or easily available at the library. They also considered the fairness of requiring weekly or daily responses and online comments from students. Are these “easy points” ultimately favoring students who don’t have to support themselves, and, if so, what in-class alternatives could encourage rigorous participation and engagement without demanding as much time outside of class?
In her article, Brittenham recommends bringing labor into the classroom as a way for faculty to engage students across their full range of identities and practices. She reminds us that “we can defuse [the negative effects of the interference] narrative in part by (1) looking carefully at the details it obscures, (2) by recognizing the complex ways in which some students already make sense of their jobs in relation to their academic studies, and (3) by acknowledging the ‘conflicts’ and ‘dissonances’ other students experience in moving between the discourses of work and school.” Brittenham’s students write “work experience narratives” and conduct interviews with workers in their communities. These assignments give student workers the opportunity to reflect on the connections between their working and studying identities and on the divides between the communities of which they are members.
Heather Steffen has proposed elsewhere that projects like All Worked Up, in which students and faculty undertake collaborative research about their institutions, can help to build a foundation of mutual knowledge, respect, and understanding between people who are, after all, often co-workers at the university. She also asks students in her seminar on Intellectual Labor and the Work of Literature to compose labor narratives — personal essays that tell a story about how they came to their own working definitions and practices of labor, like literacy narratives about work. We were surprised by the broad temporal and geographical scales of the narratives, in which students tied their jobs and studies to experiences as far back and as far away as their grandparents’ emigration and as unremarkable and intimate as the details of food service work at UCSB. The labor narratives and interviews reinforce Brittenham’s observation that “the everyday jobs [students] hold while attending college have a profound impact not only on their experiences in and beyond the classroom but also on the character and culture of [the] institution.”
Student labor is a vital resource for colleges and universities. Student workers staff the campus, keep local communities humming, and bring a wealth of experience and real-world knowledge to class with them every day. But universities and their leaders rarely acknowledge student workers’ contributions or offer supports that respond to the real challenges students like our interviewees face.
What can universities do to enact solidarity with student workers? Unlike individual faculty members, university leaders have the power to materially improve students’ working conditions. Campuses should offer fair pay and flexible hours to student workers, as well as ensuring that students’ academic commitments are respected by all university employers (including contractors). At the University of California, for instance, student employees are excluded from the $15.00 UC minimum wage, so the first action we would recommend for our own campus is to change this policy. Universities should also take a stand against exploitative unpaid internships and take more responsibility for vetting the companies and organizations that are allowed to recruit on campus.
As employers, universities should aspire to model fair, safe, harassment-free labor conditions rather than continue to reproduce the inequalities and exploitation workers off campus experience. Undergraduates are already taking matters into their own hands by organizing unions, partnering with other campus workers, and developing strategies to face the everyday challenges of being students who work and workers who study. It is time for universities and their faculty to acknowledge the vibrant spectrum of “typical students” and “typical college experiences” and to partner with student workers to dismantle the real sources of interference they encounter on the long journey to graduation.