I had a moment this week where, staring at my crossed out and question-marked hand-drawn timetable, I wondered how students fit in all their commitments. The College semester being an intensive twelve weeks means that a lot of students have ‘one of those weeks’ basically, well, every week. Often I find myself wanting to pay my way out of stress; buying an oven pizza instead of going for the cheaper, more time consuming self-made bolognese, or taking the bus instead of walking so that I can read on the way. Even without the stress-spending induced by a packed timetable, Dublin is infamous for being pricey. This pushes many students to find a part time job — not for comfort, but as a necessity. In 2021 Eurostat found that goods and services in Ireland had a higher price point than any other EU Member State, being 44% above average in the EU. For those of us living in its capital, however disappointing the news, it is hardly surprising. Top it all off with eye-watering rent and one wonders how any student can afford not to work. But with schedules that make us look like assistant-less versions of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, can we possibly navigate the stresses of balancing work and college life?
It’s certain that people who work during college and those who don’t have an entirely different experience of third-level education. A lot of students in Dublin schedule every waking moment to fit in readings and assignments alongside the timetabled classes and lectures, all before heading off for a shift — having a good work-life balance is a privilege many can’t afford. This can only create a divide in the student body, and more importantly a representation issue. Trying to participate regularly in the many extracurricular, unpaid joys of campus life, such as student politics, societies, and events while also maintaining relationships with family and friends outside of college is virtually impossible when you have a part-time job. With this in mind, let’s examine how the proportion of students with what we will call ‘campus power’ — a position in the Students’ Union, a society or publication — correlates with the proportion of students that do not have to work in college.
“The seriousness of being unable to partake in extracurricular unpaid campus activities because of part-time work is thus underestimated, and a cruel way of making students perform and compete for something as fundamental as adequate housing”.
While we might not expect ‘campus power’ to be worth much more than social currency, it still forms a vital element of the career opportunities available to us later. Nepotism in the workplace prevails; and the close-knit college communities which might open doors later on often form in the hours that other students spend doing a part-time job. On top of that Trinity offers financial rewards for being socially and voluntarily involved. If you are applying for on campus accommodation you will know what I am talking about. Not having been treasurer of a society, or part of the Student’s Union might deny you an important opportunity. With stakes this high, it seems an unfair responsibility to put on not only the working student, but also the chairpeople of societies, for example. The seriousness of being unable to partake in extracurricular unpaid campus activities because of part-time work is thus underestimated, and a cruel way of making students perform and compete for something as fundamental as adequate housing.
This issue extends into other parts of Trinity’s structure. Schols, for example, puts working students at a disadvantage as it grants lavish financial rewards for those students that have enough time to study both for their usual exams and an optional set. This seems completely counterintuitive; surely those most deserving of free, convenient accommodation and meals, tuition waivers and an annual stipend are the working students who barely have the time to devote to ordinary exams let alone optional ones?
I am not suggesting that academic merit should not be rewarded materially — but given the measures most students are forced to take to keep up with Dublin prices, perhaps a bigger proportion of scholarship rewards should be allocated for bursaries? Investing in those unable to give all their time to their studies rather than investing in those already performing well academically makes more sense to me.
“Carrying around a change of clothes and an apron as well as all your college work in your backpack is not only a physical and social strain, but also a financial one”.
Balancing work and college life hence puts more than just one’s social life at stake — it also ironically jeopardises financial support. Carrying around a change of clothes and an apron as well as all your college work in your backpack is not only a physical and social strain, but also a financial one.
Even if we ignore the financial impact of having to balance work and college life, humans are social creatures; we should all have enough time to have some kind of a social life to avoid burnout. For some, college provides this, or home life, and I have known many who find it refreshing to have a whole separate social life in their part time job. In my experience, it is great to also get to know people outside of Trinity’s insular walls. That being said, I have found that the jobs flexible enough to facilitate student commitments don’t always offer the most socially reliable environment. I used to work for a catering company, which was amazing for flexible hours — but I would never work with the same people twice. That indeed sometimes became quite lonely.
Acknowledging these stresses on working students is incredibly important in order to create a more inclusive and well-represented college community. The bitter aftertaste that lingers after calling yourself a full-time student with a part-time job, when 50% of your ‘full-time’ is being occupied, must be dealt with. Potential tactics are as follows: some students secure employment within college, or some do remote work. However, most find themselves having to choose between sacrificing their college commitments or their work commitments. This is barely a choice given the soaring cost of living, which does not make room for students as a whole, let alone students who are carers or parents for example.
The challenges of balancing work and college seem bleak when we ponder them — a bit like trying to find a cheap cocktail in town. Besides excellent organisation and high motivation, there isn’t much we can do to balance both without burning out. I think the thing to focus on as a community is spreading awareness of the challenges that come with being a working student. If we can acknowledge that in Dublin, many are forced to take on more than they can handle just to afford to live, perhaps we have a better chance at changing the classism that is woven into Trinity’s structure. To return to The Devil Wears Prada; asking for representation isn’t asking for much — it should be no more groundbreaking than florals for spring.