When “work” doesn’t mean homework

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“My mom didn’t want me to work,” said one senior, looking back on his freshman year, before he had any paid jobs. “But I was able to see the impact it had on my family, because instead of me sending money back home, they sent money to me. I never saw my mom buy anything for herself.”

The student now works six jobs. He was granted anonymity because his employers want to adhere to the recommended maximum of 15 total hours of work per week for students, and he far exceeds that number.

The senior sometimes skips lectures to fit everything into his schedule, but he says good time management allows him to stay on top of assignments. And now, he sends home money that his family has been able to use toward items like school supplies for his younger brother and sister.

Jennifer Rolen, assistant dean and associate director of the Stanford First-Generation and/or Low-Income (FLI) Office, said many students she interacts with have to make tough choices about whether to take on more work. The FLI Office provides resources, mentoring and a gathering space to students from low-income households and/or who are the first in their families to attend college.

“A lot of us come from a place where we’re all taking care of each other,” said Rolen, who is a FLI graduate of San Jose State University. Although she cautions against generalizing this experience across all FLI students, Rolen said the struggle to balance work and classes is a common one in the community.

“As a professional, we don’t want them to work that many hours,” she said. “But then as somebody that comes from that community, I know it’s a need.”

The administrative guide that describes University policy on student employment says students are “encouraged to limit their hours of work so that they may devote sufficient attention to their studies. Therefore, the jobs listed for undergraduates during any enrollment period should not typically require more than 15 hours per week of work.”

Rolen said Stanford suggested a limit of 20 hours rather than 15 when she began working here.

Fifteen hours per week is a suggestion but not a rule, according to Karen Cooper, Stanford’s Director of Financial Aid. Still, many treat 15 hours as if it is an official maximum amount of allowed work.

A sophomore who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss problems she has experienced related to work and financial aid said she asked her campus employer whether she could work more, but the employer responded that she could not take on more than 15 hours per week.

“I was told I wasn’t allowed to do that legally,” the student said. “Otherwise I would be working more. Ideally I would work at least 20.” She worked 30 hours per week throughout high school.

For students who receive financial aid, paid work is a requirement.

“All students who receive financial aid have an expectation that they will take responsibility for a portion of their expenses (typically $5,000) through work over the summer and/or during the academic year,” Cooper wrote in an email to The Daily.

The policy carries on a long history of American students working to help pay their way through college. The Federal Work-Study Program, created as part of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, helped formalize work-study programs, though students had worked outside of class long before that.

Many students currently receiving financial aid at Stanford are also eligible for Federal Work-Study, but different formulas are used to determine who can receive each type of assistance, Cooper said. According to Cooper, about 400 Stanford undergraduates participate in Federal Work-Study each year. The financial aid office does not track how many students work in other positions.

While students who receive financial aid must earn at least $5,000 per academic year to meet Stanford’s requirement for their contribution, many feel the need to earn more. Financial aid does not always cover additional academic expenses like course fees, books and field trips, and families’ abilities to pay out of pocket vary widely.

The sophomore puts her earnings toward “anything from shampoo to paying off Stanford bills.” None of her family members are able to help with expenses, she said. She also sends some money home.

Under Stanford’s financial aid policy, students receiving funds come from families in a variety of financial situations. Aid depends on “assets, family size, and number of family members in college” in addition to income, according to Cooper. Students whose families make $65,000 or less per year — still a wide range of incomes — receive full financial aid and are generally considered part of the FLI community.

The Diversity and First-Generation Office started the Opportunity Fund four years ago to help cover surprise expenses like medical emergencies and travel related to death or illness, and also to support academic opportunities like attending national conferences. The FLI office runs a “FLI-brary” where students in the community can access used textbooks for free. Both offices aim to reduce the financial stress students from low-income families experience due to costs that go beyond tuition.

“There’ve been studies that show that the FLI students at Stanford all graduate, they get good grades, but the thing that affects them the most is that level of stress,” Rolen said. “Usually stress from home and the feeling that they have to, you know, contribute to home and to work extra hours.”

Habeeb Jimoh ’22 is trying to save the money he makes as a coordinator for a Spanish service learning course because he anticipates that his financial aid may decrease soon. Only his father worked when Jimoh started college, but his mother recently earned a nursing degree and will start to work soon. Although the family’s income will rise, losing full financial aid requires some planning.

Jimoh notes that he likes his work, which takes 15 hours per week. “I’m doing a job that supports my education,” he said, explaining that he’s minoring in modern languages. “I didn’t know that was a possibility. So now after doing this job, I’m trying to see how else I can do things outside of academics that can still support me. I think that’s a healthy way to have a job if you don’t have enough time.”

Rolen said time management is especially important for students balancing academic commitments and paid jobs. The FLI office recently collaborated with the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning to host a workshop on time management. Still, Rolen noted it can be difficult for students to add more commitments to their days.

“I think the resources are there. It’s just hard to tap into everything,” she said of students trying to add classes on time management and wellness to schedules already full of academic courses and work. Rolen said she hopes to centralize as many resources as possible in the FLI office to make students’ lives easier.

“I know you gotta do what you gotta do,” she said of the students she advises. “But there’s part of me that just wants to be like, ‘No, it’s okay. Just do a little bit more work and we’ll figure out the rest.’ So we still try to work on ways that we can save money, like the FLI-brary. Maybe saving money on some textbooks might help because that’s a couple less hours they have to work.”

The anonymous sophomore said her conversations with the financial aid office around extra expenses have been complicated. She’s planning to study abroad this year and needs to buy plane tickets. Financial aid office employees told her they’d paid part of her Stanford bill with money originally designated for her ticket, she said. She is trying to find a way to fund the remaining $300 without taking out a loan.

“It’s really hard for us to go in there and have people tell us to get a loan as the first option. I realize that sometimes, that may be the only option. But [loans] just kind of perpetuate a bad cycle for people who are already low-income,” the student said. “I think they give that too liberally as an option.”

When students aren’t able to earn enough money to pay their bills through work, the financial aid office recommends either loans or outside scholarships, Cooper said. “Those students who do choose to borrow are from all across the income spectrum,” she wrote. She added, “For the students who graduated this past year, 83% of the undergraduates had zero student debt.”

“In the financial aid office, there should be more perspectives from people who are first generation and/or low income, more people who can empathize,” the sophomore said. “Maybe if financial aid could deal with these problems better, we wouldn’t have to put ourselves in the position to work as much.”

Contact Jasmine Kerber at jkerber ‘at’ stanford.edu.


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