Earning My Education

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Last month, the pundits were abuzz about a hot topic in higher education: According to a recent speech by President Obama, the U.S. has slipped from No. 1 to No. 12 in the world for the highest number people with college degrees.

Though I'm far from a higher education expert, I'd like to venture a guess as to what may be keeping many young adults from realizing their academic goals - college completion is harder than ever. Because for some college students, academics is by no means the top priority.

I am one of those students.

Friends know me as a busy person - if I'm not sleeping or in class, you can usually find me at one of my three jobs. To be sure, this is unusual even for me, but I have been working two jobs and full-time hours for the last four years.

Knife-saleswoman, ice cream scooper, cashier, dishwasher, fitting room attendant, reporter and editor at this newspaper - I've done it all.

As exciting as these positions may sound, being a working student has always been an uphill battle. It's shaped my years at Cal more than the amazing academics or my dear friends; it's meant that the "best-years-of-your-life" college experience - the one we all come here seeking - never materialized for me.

And unfortunately, the recession and the ever-increasing price of a college education has meant that I'm not alone in this predicament. Studies indicate that nearly one-third of students enrolled in four-year universities work while in college, and that number nearly doubles for two-year institutions.

On our campus, it's harder to quantify specific numbers and impossible to guess how many people work off-campus. I know from experience that not everyone who works receives work-study. However, the UC Berkeley work-study office reports that an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 students get work-study jobs.

Sadly, determining how many hours these students work (a key determinant, studies say, of whether said job hurts or helps academic performance) is an altogether different and acutely difficult task. Even under campus payroll, employing departments are encouraged to keep student-workers to only 20 hours a week, but this is not enforced.

With double-digit fee hikes and the general economic malaise, it's safe to assume that many working-students exceed this 20-hour recommendation.

So what, right? Some students who haven't worked think that time spent in clubs or classes is comparable to the commitment work entails. Sorry to burst your bubble - it's not in the same league.

Of course, if you haven't HAD to work, I know you wouldn't get what it feels like. The pressure and the desperation of worrying how you'll pay for books, your next meal, your bills.

And whether or not you realize it, the anxiety, resentment and struggle of full-time working students doesn't just hurt them - it hurts everyone.

What's really destructive about this ongoing inequality is the division it causes between students at the same institution. Accustomed to the work hierarchy I have experienced since the age of 17, I have begun to see the world in polarities. The power dynamics of customer and server have spread, in my vision, from the confines of the office, the cafeteria, the clothing store to encompass my whole reality.

Because there seems always to be this pattern from job to job - the workers tend to look like me ... and the customers, well, they often look like what I expect a wealthy person to look like. Well-dressed, well-groomed, white.

Now when I encounter customers or strangers who meet this description, my mind automatically triggers a response - I assume things, based on my experiences, even though I know people who defy my inaccurate stereotypes. This person must be privileged, entitled and utterly devoid of real-world struggle. And what's truly disheartening is not the number of people I've met who meet my expectations, but the number who defy them - and how that isn't enough to make me re-evaluate my attitudes.

It seems that a similar misunderstanding happens on the other side of that cash register. Maybe you assume I don't go to this school? Do you think I like being instructed via random gestures because you can't postpone that call for two minutes?

In the midst of myriad misunderstandings between the servers and the served, a solution seems out of reach. Obviously, people will continue entering this university at different income levels and with different financial needs. And I don't think students should stop working - sure, I complain about my hours, but I feel immense pride knowing I didn't need help from anyone to get my degree.

What I'm asking for is mutual respect, common courtesy and support for those of us who work. This campus, not to mention the world, is divided enough as it is. Empathy and etiquette could really go a long way. Who knows - maybe mutual respect will put us on the path toward true interclass and interracial understanding in this increasingly unequal society. At the very least, it would make daily life more enjoyable and get the good karma flowing.

And while I enjoy working, the campus and university administration and the federal government would be well-served by investing more in the work-study program and other means of ensuring college students (all of us) are getting the best preparation to becoming valued contributors to society, the economy and whatever else we choose.

If for no other reason, you should be nice to employees you encounter based on the movie "Waiting." You know what they say - Don't mess with people who have access to your food.

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Show Kelly some R-E-S-P-E-C-T at [email protected]



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