The monkey on my back
A student recounts her struggles balancing college with work
In the last six months alone, I have walked out of the hotel where I work as a waitress on two separate occasions for what I thought was the very last time. And each time, like a classic scene in a horror film, I have found myself back there only a few months later, as if the door to leave leads me back inside again. Though some may attribute this to the allure of polishing cutlery, the fact is, ever since I finally managed to secure my first job, I have felt obligated as a student to maintain some form of independent income.
Until I got this job after my first year in Trinity, my understanding of the intricacies of balancing student life with a job was mostly based upon what I observed of my friends. In the twilight years of secondary school, and then at the start of college, I watched as they sacrificed weekends to pay for non-parent-funded shenanigans and the crushing weight of Dublin’s rental market. Despite the difficulties of a part-time job, I naively thought that when I myself found a job, the result would be far more like the romanticised life of a college student as portrayed in overly idealistic (and usually American) films. Surely I too would balance the responsibilities of working and studying with ease, gliding through college like the hard-working, highly motivated person I ought to be.
“As it turns out, I am not a fictional character with a seemingly nonexistent stress threshold, churning out high-quality coursework as I propel myself into the working world with grace.”
As it turns out, I am not a fictional character with a seemingly nonexistent stress threshold, churning out high-quality coursework as I propel myself into the working world with grace. It was mostly with both misguided ideals and a burst of determination that I insisted upon working after the summer holidays came to an end, travelling home at the weekends to do so. I don’t usually go home too often, but sourcing a job in Dublin was a more daunting affair than the two-hour bus journey to Kilkenny. I assumed the trip to and fro would be an ideal opportunity to catch up on coursework. In reality, I would usually convince myself that I could get more work done later if I spent the journey resting instead.
Unlike many, I’m lucky enough to have actually have a choice on this matter. Considering the hefty financial burden of college fees and accommodation, it seems ironic that my parents would much prefer that I keep work for the summertime, and tend to protest when I tell them how many hours I’m rostered to work for. A high level of stress typically results in a colourful array of mental health issues on my part and so it makes sense that they would rather I don’t have the added pressure of working as well as managing college. Personally, I prefer to continue on walking the ever-narrowing tightrope, stubbornly insisting that I can maintain a level of balance. Much like the three burning hot dinner plates I have to carry when waitressing, I wobble on.
“More and more frequently, I find myself comparing the cost of something to the portion of minimum wage that it comprises.”
It makes sense that as the day-to-day costs of college add up, at fierce odds with the budget you gave yourself at the start of the week, you grasp at an opportunity, preferably a dignified one, to pay for it yourself. For instance, I was once so desperate in first year to earn money to pay for the bus home one weekend that I ended up cleaning up a roommate’s burrito vomit in exchange for the fare. In less extreme circumstances, instead of living on porridge or napping through meals, you might actually have enough money set aside to buy a vegetable yourself. Having earned it yourself honestly doesn’t make a meal taste any better, but it’s better than having to swallow your pride as you make the phone call home to announce that you are in fact broke again and yes, you did get the money transferred into your account a few days prior. But I’ve found that earning your own money teaches an important lesson in adapting to a more frugal lifestyle. Yes, I can actually afford avocados, but did I really spend an hour and a half polishing wine glasses just for that? More and more frequently, I find myself comparing the cost of something to the portion of minimum wage that it comprises. I still can’t afford to leave tips for service, but I certainly feel guiltier about it.
In terms of the effect a part-time job has on my grades, I feel like if I didn’t spend my weekends working, then I would just find another way to distract myself from college work. I’ll be the first to admit that I reached a low point during the Christmas holidays when, whilst working forty hours per week, I missed even the extended deadline I was granted for a heavily weighted essay. It seems only fair to blame poor planning for instances like these, but the reality is that working is tiring, and trying to study after a long shift doesn’t always go as planned. Sacrifices are made, and rather than using weekends as a chance to catch up on coursework or sleep, I often find myself exhausted and unorganised come Monday mornings. However, lecturers are far less likely to accept any excuse that isn’t backed up by a medical cert, and your manager certainly won’t care that you might actually fail your assignment because they needed you to stay on a few hours extra. Trying to please everyone can often result in neglecting your own well being, but I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that scraping by in my course, at least for now, is preferable to worrying about how I’m ever supposed to make a living or pay for a Masters when students can only ever hope to get an unpaid internship in an area they definitely don’t care about. No matter how much I’d rather not clear unnecessarily messy tables, at least I’m guaranteed a payslip at the end of the week.
A part-time job may not be on the agenda for everyone, but there is something to be said about stepping away from college, and into an environment where no one really cares about II–1s or extracurriculars – just the standard of the salmon that night. Your essay on Locke and Rousseau may have to take a backseat, but you can take comfort in not having to cite your sources as you rattle off the specials of the evening. It can be pressurising to be constantly thinking about the studying you could be doing instead, and there have definitely been times where I’ve wanted nothing more than to walk out, but there is something to be said for the sense of achievement realised by providing your own source of income. If you can find a job that allows some leniency towards your hours, or doesn’t take too much out of you, it can be a great way to keep yourself afloat through college. Unfortunately, it also means beginning one long balancing act that you may never quite master.
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