At some point in my first year I realized that I wasn’t partaking in the authentic Columbia experience—I had somehow neglected to stress out about internships. After a cursory search on LionSHARE, Columbia’s job-posting platform, I found a listing for a startup which claimed to embrace a culture of “fun” and “nerdiness.” I applied and was invited to the startup’s office in Brooklyn, where I was informed of my new title: graphic design consultant. I accepted without giving it too much thought—admittedly, I wasn’t in a position where I had to seriously weigh my options.
In the end, I was immensely lucky to have had a rewarding two-semester internship experience. Unfortunately, many students at Columbia can’t afford to take a similar leap of faith.
According to Columbia’s Financial Aid and Educational Financing website, Columbia “has the highest percentage of Pell grant recipients of any Ivy League or private research university,” part of an effort to make “a Columbia education even more accessible for students from every background.” Columbia’s dedication to providing opportunities to students from low- and middle-income families is strongly emphasized by the administration, and is particularly admirable given increasing income inequality in the United States. However, Columbia’s work-study program, a feature of Columbia’s financial aid package, only perpetuates the income inequality problem.
A work-study job is generally the most sensible choice for a student on a budget. This is on account of some inherent pros: most work-study jobs are on campus or within walking distance (there are only three openings listed under “Off Campus” on the work-study portal as of my writing this, out of a total 260 openings). The jobs are also offered specifically to students with certain financial aid packages, as opposed to LionSHARE jobs, which are open to all students. Most importantly, these jobs are guaranteed to pay. On the other hand, internships elsewhere require a significantly greater time commitment, in part due to the need to travel and food and transportation costs. Moreover, students in certain fields, such as political science and human rights, may find only unpaid internships pertaining to their immediate interests. And while unpaid internships provide good experience in the long term, the choice is often financially unfeasible in the short term.
As such, it seems as though work-study jobs are at the very least a decent option for students from low-income families—or that would be the case, if these jobs actually provided students with valuable experience.
However, the opposite seems to be true. I interviewed several students who had work-study job experience. With a few exceptions, these students were apathetic toward their jobs, calling their work “unproductive” and “a waste of time.” One respondent remarked that her work-study position was essentially a “paid study hall”—though recent reforms are likely to change that, robbing some work-study positions of their value altogether. Students doing programming-related work were the notable exceptions to the trend—satisfied with their level of productivity and the flexibility of their programs, they spoke highly of their experiences. The rest were ultimately dissatisfied, stuck doing busywork: making calls, inputting data, or maintaining equipment.
A statistician might call my sample size statistically insignificant or point out that the students I interviewed may have been particularly lazy (which I will neither confirm nor deny). Still, it is alarming that most of the respondents didn’t believe that their work-study experiences would contribute to their résumés.
This is a huge setback for Columbia’s efforts to engage students from the lower and middle classes. Students without significant financial burdens can feasibly compete for paid or even unpaid internships. There they are likely to get serious work experience to boost their résumés while making connections with others in their fields. This increases their chances of getting hired in the future.
The same doesn’t apply to financially disadvantaged students. According to Columbia’s Center for Career Education, the “purpose of a resume is to convince a potential employer to interview you and consider you for a position.” It’s a shame, then, that work-study jobs rarely offer marketable skills, handicapping financially disadvantaged students in the long run. Columbia offers the Center for Career Education, among other resources, to peer-review résumés and cover letters. Sadly, peer reviews can’t turn an empty résumé into an impressive one.
CCE also has a Work Exemption Program, which offers grants for students to pursue unpaid internships and research projects. However, the program is competitive, and a prerequisite to applying is that a student must have “an unpaid internship, research opportunity or volunteer opportunity” prior to the application deadline. It’s a significant gamble to accept such a position with no guarantee of a Work Exemption Program grant.
There’s no denying that some students accept work-study jobs just to make some extra money. But for the sake of disadvantaged students who desperately need the financial aid, work-study jobs need to aim for a higher standard of engagement and productivity. In the interest of the success of each and every Columbian, the University must reconsider the standard for responsibilities of a student hired within the work-study program.
Mikhail Klimentov is a Columbia College sophomore with prospective majors in computer science and political science. Humor Me runs alternate Wednesdays.
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