All work and even more work: The college experience for working students

Story and photos by Izzie Pasciolla 

Hannah Donnelly’s fingers tap furiously on her IPhone 11 screen as she sits in the driver’s seat of her Nissan Versa. All around her, groups of smiling people walk into Olive Garden to enjoy a nice meal together, while she sits in her uniform, eating alone.

Donnelly takes a few bites of her salad as she finishes her last homework problem on her phone. With only a few minutes left of her lunch break, she submits her assignment, then gathers her things to head back into the rest of her shift.

“There’s a lot of days where I’ll be working a double on a Saturday and I also have an assignment due,” said Donnelly, a sophomore biochemistry major and waitress at Olive Garden.

Hannah Donnelly is a CMU sophomore and part time Olive Garden employee.

“So, on my hour-long lunch break I sit in my car and do my assignment on my phone. You know I work for 10.5 hours and then on my five minutes of break I’m trying to get other things done.”

This is the reality for students who work part-time jobs during the school year: planning out every minute and fitting in schoolwork anywhere they can. For students like Donnelly, work is a high priority, or else they wouldn’t be able to afford to be in college at all.

“I had $3000 that I had to pay for summer classes…to try and lighten my load of classes during the school year so that I could work more,” Donnelly said. “So that’s where most of my summer money went.”

And work she does, 25 hours per week, including weekday evenings, Saturday mornings and even double shifts all weekend long, she said.

“I have no time,” Donnelly said. “I haven’t watched a TV show in months. I don’t have time to see people. A lot of times if I do, I’m so burnt out and tired from working.”

Jason Mcginnis, a sophomore psychology major and fashion employee at Meijer, has similar struggles. He works 20 hours per week, on weekday nights, to help his family pay for his education.

“We somewhat have the means that I could not work, but at the same time, it’s a lot easier if I can make my own money for myself,” he said.

Jason Mcginnis is a full-time CMU sophomore, as well as a part time Meijer employee.

Students like Donnelly and Mcginnis have no choice but to organize their time. Using a planner to schedule time, sometimes even by the hour, is essential for anyone wanting to work during the
semester, Donnelly said.

Mcginnis agrees that it is important to prioritize things and only try to have social time when it’s reasonable.

“I put my school first and then my work,” he said. “But it definitely makes things difficult. I had assignments that weren’t due until tonight, but I didn’t have time to do them all week because of work.”

This type of scheduling and workload doesn’t leave a lot of time for friends or college events.

“I never get to go to anything,” Donnelly said. “I just don’t.”

So far this year, Donnelly has missed Halloween parties, sorority events such as votes and bid day, friendly gatherings in her hometown, and even small classes she wanted to attend for her own well-being.

“Mostly things, even as little as looking at my schedule and being like, ‘Oh, I want to go to a workout class this week. Oh well, none of the ones I want to go to are running on days where I don’t have to work,’” she said.

Donnelly must pick and choose the events that are most important to her and if she can’t get the day off work, she has to bribe her coworkers.

“If I want to do something I have to beg people or pay people to cover my shift,” she said. “So, the whole time I’m at something I’m thinking, ‘Well is this even fun enough for the amount I paid to get my shift covered?’”

The time she does spend with friends typically involves doing some sort of schoolwork.

“A lot of times hanging out with friends means also scheduling to do an assignment during that time,” she said. “So, I might be like, ‘We’re going to get coffee for an hour and during that coffee I need to get this much of this thing done to stay on schedule.’”

Mcginnis has a similar experience. He has missed the WMU game, a free doughnuts event at Carey Hall and going to Soaring Eagle with his friends, he said.

“Hanging out with friends and events with friends and planning to go places, I haven’t been able to do,” Mcginnis said. “I have to schedule it now, very carefully.”

Missing these events and experiences can lead to a feeling of depression and jealousy, Donnelly said.

“I look at people all the time who don’t have to work to survive and I think, ‘Your worries are so much smaller,’” she said. “You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to eat or how you’re going to pay your bills. To listen to people who are like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so broke, I have like $15.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah me too, but like, I can’t afford to.’ You know, it’s a different level of severity.”

Mcginnis also has these feelings of jealousy, but he understands that his friends have a lot to do as well.

“It makes me feel jealous a little bit,” he said. “But at the same time, I understand they’re probably doing other stuff too. But I feel like I’m just doing one more thing than them.”

Despite the jealousy and difficult workload, these students have no choice but to continue working. Donnelly pays for her car insurance, phone bill, car repairs, gas, food and more. These expenses make her contemplate on buying things that her friends wouldn’t hesitate to buy for
themselves, she said.

“Buying myself a $15 purchase that I probably lamented over for weeks is so different than going out to dinner,” she said. “People don’t get what your expenses are.”

This busy and exhaustive lifestyle is not something Donnelly would recommend to anyone, unless it is absolutely required, she said.

“If you don’t have to, don’t do it,” she said. “It’s not for fun.”

And those who do want to work during the semester, should find a job that will work with a student schedule, Mcginnis said.

“Find a job that’s flexible and understands that you’re a student,” he said. “Because there are times when you’ll need extended days off for school.”