Continued Frustrations with Work Study

During all four years of my undergraduate career at Cornell University, I qualified for federal work study. Each year, I took on different work study jobs on- and off-campus, oftentimes concurrently. It was always a struggle to balance academics with work, but I managed to do just fine so long as I planned my schedule meticulously and maintained a good work ethic.

As a senior undergraduate student, I am once again looking for federal work study employment. Participating in a Fall academic credit internship forced me to give up all of my on-campus job positions last summer, including my usual position as a food server in one of Cornell’s eateries. Additionally, my position as a tutor at Fall Creek Elementary–a job I acquired through Cornell University’s Public Service Center–ended last Spring after a transition in student leadership over the program left me in the dark about my scheduled hours for Spring 2014. Several calls and emails to the program’s leaders, including visits to the Public Service Center, left me with no responses or information regarding whether I could return to work in the Spring or whether my scheduled hours were changed. Teachers and program leaders at Fall Creek Elementary didn’t have a list of what students were scheduled to appear, nor when, and could not tell me if I was scheduled to work. Even though they were happy to have me there, I couldn’t continue working without a guarantee that someone somewhere was aware of my hours and that my paycheck would come in without problem at the end of the month. I couldn’t afford the insecurity and, just like that, in the Spring of 2015, I ended up without a on-campus job (sans blogging for Life on the Hill), despite 4 years of experience balancing 2-3 jobs during any given semester.

So I employed my own advice. A few years ago, I wrote a post on this blog identifying different ways that other work study students like me could find job postings for on-campus and off-campus jobs. I looked through own post and started a new search. Being a senior, I had a few new priorities limiting my job choices:

  1. I couldn’t take any job that required me to work into the summer or for more than one semester. Graduation is just around the (river) bend (beyond the shore), so I couldn’t commit to being in Ithaca beyond May 2015.
  2. Aside from classes, job interviews and visits home to New York City are new important time commitments constricting my schedule. Flexibility is now more important than ever. Luckily, I’ve saved enough money that I can get through the whole semester on just a few hours a week of work at a decent on-campus rate ($8-$10/hour). Plus, I am free every Tuesday–guaranteed. An ideal job, therefore, would give me one or two consistent shifts on Tuesdays, the ability to work flexible hours, or the option to work from home. Otherwise, the job wouldn’t be worth the hassle it would present in necessitating a reorientation of every other commitment in my schedule.
  3. Finally, I needed a job as soon as possible. With savings and Christmas gift cards, I bought all my textbooks and supplies for my final semester, but food costs, bus tickets, and other expenses are already threatening to compound beginning February 2015. I can’t make interviews or visit my family without money. I can’t cover basic living costs without money. If anything should go wrong–for example, if my compute breaks down or if I discover that the textbook I purchased is the wrong edition for my class–I’m going to need money to resolve those issues. Unlike many students, I have familial support than I can depend on if things truly go awry, but I don’t want to resort to that option for fear of burdening my family or discovering that they can’t cover the costs. Already, they pay exorbitant tuition and housing fees. They are no longer a guaranteed safety net. However, if I don’t acquire a job soon, I’m not going to get a first paycheck in time to balance out these expenses on my own and the strings on that safety net are going to be tested, whether I want them to be or not.

So with all these factors in mind, I searched for on-campus jobs through Cornell University’s online job postings for work-study students and I looked around campus for posters advertising open positions. I applied to several jobs and waited weeks for a response. To date, I still don’t have a job.

Now here is where things became frustrating.

I had some free time on my hands during the first weeks of this semester because I had completed some preliminary reading assignments for my courses during the Winter Break. So I took that time to investigate what happened to my applications. For some postings, I had waited as long as 3 weeks without any response about the position. I emailed departments, visited offices, called numbers listed on the job postings…to no avail. Several times, my emails and calls went unanswered. A few kind souls did answer me back, only to tell me that they had already given the position to someone else and hadn’t yet found the time to tell me or to take down their job posting from Cornell’s notice boards. Again and again, I was either ignored or denied, until at last I had no one left to call.

So I went back to square one. I looked for new positions. Primarily, I looked again on Cornell’s online job board. It took me several minutes to sort out the job postings advertising positions for which I had already applied and knew were not open anymore. Additionally, I had to set aside several other positions because their requirements for hours, foreign language proficiency, or prior experience eliminated my candidacy. It was particularly depressing to hold back from applying to student administrative II and student administrative III positions because it reminded me of how hard I had tried for three years prior to secure a student administrative I position in order to qualify for those higher-level jobs. It goes without saying, given my current work history, that I never got those entry-level student administrative jobs; too many students, too few positions. Of course, being a food server for three years, as well as a tutor and blogger for 1-2 years, didn’t sweeten my application at all. At least, given the number of rejections I faced, it surely doesn’t seem so.

By the time I weeded out all the positions I couldn’t apply for or manage to keep, I was left with three kinds of jobs: food server jobs on campus, alumni fundraising callers, and social media promotion jobs for external companies. It was incredibly defeating to see those positions crop up. I didn’t want to be a food server again. There is always a demand for new student labor in those fields precisely because those jobs have high turnover. They are difficult jobs, oftentimes with inflexible schedules, poor managers, and comparatively low pay (when compared against other on-campus jobs). I also didn’t want to commit to three shifts a week at a job I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, especially when I didn’t need that many hours nor the hassle that inherently comes with it. Alumni callers are better paid and more flexible in comparison but, from previous experience, I know that the interview and application process can take weeks. In the meantime, you can go broke waiting to be rejected from the position. The social media jobs are similarly inconvenient. A long wait time for a response to your application, few positions, and incentive-based or irregular pay–it’s not the ideal job for someone prizing consistency and immediate hire. My remaining options seemed incredibly bleak.

“Maybe I’m being too picky?” I thought. After so many rejections, I had to face facts that a senior undergraduate student who only wants to work a few hours a week isn’t at all desirable for on-campus employers, even with a record of good service. Before acquiescing to another round of applications, however, I tried one last attempt to find new on-campus job opportunities; I called the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment.

Actually, I called twice.

I was hoping the office could give me new ideas for where I could find jobs or guide me in finding better off-campus employment, if necessary. Instead, after my first call on January 23, 2015, I heard a never-ending tone that rang and rang and rang in my ear in a monotonous droll. I had to hang up after a while in order to pick up another incoming call, but I immediately called the office a second time later in the day when I became available again. Around noon I made my second call and, again, the tone rang about a dozen times before…

…something happened. Someone picked up the phone.

And breathed into the receiver for about half a minute…

…before they hung up on me.

But before I could say a word to them–before I could introduce myself to them or say hello or ask for help–they immediately and without a word hung up on me. It was so disheartening that I didn’t even bother to call the office again. I know I didn’t have the wrong number; it’s the only phone number listed on the university’s website for the office. Someone there must have seen the phone ringing, decided to pick up the receiver, and click it down on its base without even asking who was calling. I didn’t hesitate; I know, for a fact, that they did not hang up on me because they thought I wasn’t there or because something was wrong with the line. I could hear the receiver’s plastic click into place in the last second of the phone call, when it didn’t quite fit back into its base. Someone, quite literally, could not spare a minute of their time in that office to see what it was that I needed.

I’m trying very hard not take the event personally and to not assume that the office generally treats individuals calling their phone lines in the same way I was treated earlier today. However, there was no moment more frustrating or upsetting throughout my entire job search than when, after making every conscious effort I could to find a work-study job that fits my needs and fulfill my obligation to the federal government and to the university, and after every on-campus employer had denied my application and almost every other on-campus employer had unsympathetically refused to even acknowledge my inquiries, an office at Cornell University with “student employment” in its name refused to afford me even a minute of help.

Be sure that one of these days I will walk over to that office to see if someone could help me in person.
Be sure that, on one of these days, I will apply to each and every one of those remaining online job postings, despite not wanting to take any of those jobs because of their notoriety.
Be sure that I will continue to look diligently for some kind of employment that fits my schedule and hope, alongside an undoubtedly large number of students, that the supply of us is not greater than the demand for our labor as it seems so often to be the case here on campus.

But, as a comment to Cornell University’s administrators in light of my growing frustration with your work-study system: It should never be this hard for your students to find a job when you advertise work-study as an opportunity for those who could not otherwise afford attending your institution to finance their education through their own hard work. As much as you demand your work-study student to apply themselves to their work with integrity, demand that your departments and student employers show the same courtesy to their applicants and put effort into creating good jobs and maintaining up-to-date job postings. More importantly, ensure that there are opportunities to work where you promised there would be plentiful opportunity, or do a more effective campaign of informing your work-study student of the jobs available to them. At the moment, it is too hard to find a job on a campus where a large population of students need one.

As a side note, please consider that, although my particular job needs at the moment are unique and complex, throughout the years I have spoken with dozens of students with much greater availability and willingness to work who similarly struggled to find a job–any job–on campus as an able student worker. The final recommendation in my post can be defended as strongly through their stories as through mine.

One thought on “Continued Frustrations with Work Study

  1. Hi Roselby.

    I have a freelance blogging opportunity you might be interested in, using this blog. If you’d like to know more, please email me at the email address associated with this comment.

    Thanks!

    – Don

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