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full-time job and college
Luz Pineda, who works full-time, is a senior at California State University, Northridge. Balancing the demands of work and school has been a challenge that leaves her little time for anything else, including sleep. Credit: Courtesy of Mimi Pineda

California State University, Northridge is one of the most diverse schools in the nation. But roughly half of its students don’t graduate in six years, and many never receive a degree. To remedy this problem, California State University, which consists of 23 schools and is the largest university system in the country, has launched an initiative to double its four-year graduation rate in 10 years. Working with The Hechinger Report for this series, three students from a Northridge journalism class write about what has held them back, and what they think needs to change.

My college experience has definitely not been what I expected. In high school, I looked forward to joining the broadcast journalism club, attending concerts, and maybe even trying out for the softball team. Instead, I wake up most days at 4 a.m., work a 10-hour work shift at a community health clinic more than an hour from my home, and then rush through traffic to my evening classes. That’s when my college experience begins.

Let’s take a trip into a day in my life:

Sometimes, I just want to quit my job so I can focus on my education. But how can I? I have to pay my tuition and pay bills for myself and my family.

Millions of college students across the United States are in a similar situation. More than a third of all undergraduate students work more than 30 hours a week, according to a 2015 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The study refers to students like me as working learners.

Working so much means we are more likely to be stressed, feel disconnected from school and drop out. That’s something I can relate to: For years I struggled financially and academically, always on the edge of quitting school, ashamed that I could not handle school and work more easily.

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To learn more about the problems facing working learners, I visited Dr. Anne Eipe, a psychologist at my college, California State University, Northridge. She told me the number one reason students visit the counseling office is because of stress and anxiety caused by trying to balance the demands of school, work and finances. I felt better just knowing that I am not alone.

“I wake up most days at 4 a.m., work a 10-hour work shift at a community health clinic more than an hour from my home, and then rush through traffic to my evening classes. That’s when my college experience begins.”

Talking to Eipe was like being in a therapy session. She noticed I was fidgety and seemed nervous. I told her it was because I was tired and anxious.

I also spoke with fellow working learners, and realized that others are going through a similar struggle, trying to do too many things with not enough time.

To get a perspective on a working learner’s life after graduation, I talked to Karen Gonzalez, a recent alum of my university who worked full time while in school. She told me she often thought about dropping out of college because of the “soul draining” stress. Now, working as a records clerk for a law firm, she said she believes the stress was worth it. She assured me that the added challenge of working while in school will definitely prepare me for the future.

Isn’t working more than enough to give me the experience I need to get a job in the field that I want? Well, not quite. Degrees matter: College graduates scored the vast majority of recently created jobs.

There is no way around it. Our struggle to get a degree is a struggle to secure our future.

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Here are a few tips and suggestions I found to help those of us who work while in college stay sane and succeed.

  1. Remember, you are not alone.
  2. Try to find a job related to your major. You might want to wait to apply for your dream job until after you graduate college, but it doesn’t hurt to get your foot in the door and apply for job that will give you work experience. And it will look good on your resume, too.
  3. Work on campus. Your boss is more likely to be flexible about your schedule, you’ll have more time to go to the library to study or get homework done and you won’t have to actually leave the campus. No long commutes!
  4. Don’t forget about yourself. Take at least one day out of your busy week to do something that makes you happy and helps you relax.
  5. Take a step back. Don’t be afraid to take breaks, naps and walks. Stepping back and clearing your mind for a few minutes will help you to focus better and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  6. Look at the bigger picture. Just imagine yourself on graduation day receiving your hard-earned degree, knowing that all your sacrifices and hard work really did pay off. You (we) can and will do this!

Luz Pineda is her fourth year at California State University, Northridge and plans to graduate in fall 2017 with a double major in journalism and Central American studies. She works at a Los Angeles community health clinic as a dental home coordinator.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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