Opinion | Columns

Work-study program disadvantages students and their résumés

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.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

I really appreciate this column being written. I open carts and carts of mail at my work-study job. Last semester during finals, I made the mistake of bringing my textbook to work during reading week. I was going to settle in at 10am and stay until 5pm because I REALLY needed the money. Me and another work study student traded off: I would study for one hour while she did mail, then we would switch. A supervisor came in while I was reading and told me to put my book away. I explained to him that it was reading week, how I really needed the money but also to study, and I had JUST been opening mail before he came in. I had to put away my book. I left early to go study and made less money as a result. I understand that I'm there to do my job, but I was really disappointed by the trade off I was forced to make. Especially since it wasn't like I was the only one there to get that mail opened. Not only were there more students to cover me in my turn, bu there were actual employees of the university there whose job of opening mail we were doing. Sure us studying may result in less of those envelopes being ripped open but that's minimal compared to the amount of work the ACTUAL employees would have to do if we didn't come in at all because we had to study.

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Anonymous posted on

I've been lucky enough to have a really positive work study experience (shout out to CCNMTL) but I sympathize with everyone working the mind-numbing desk jobs. But I especially feel for those who aren't eligible for work study but still could use the money, particularly freshmen, who may be uncomfortable pursuing off-campus work opportunities while they're still settling in.

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Mikhail posted on

In all of those situations it would be enormously helpful if the work environment and actual assignment were more conducive to professional development. It's totally true that this also applies to freshmen and any first-time job seekers; I didn't think to address that.

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Anonymous posted on

This is a really valuable comment. Even aside from whether or not the work environment is a good one, the problem still exists that I will not have experience that stands out on a resume. It looks like I just did totally normal clerical work because I did not want to do something more involved. But that's simply not true, I just cannot afford to not steadily be making money. I'm very thankful for my work-study job, I just wish there was an alternative.

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Mikhail posted on

Hey Anon,
If you really feel strongly about this, forward this article to your advisor along with your concerns and see if (s)he has any advice. Op eds shouldn't exist in a vacuum - see if there's anything you can do to bring this to the administration's attention.

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Uptown posted on

Tovarich: I was a work study commuter back in olden times. I've been lucky since then. I'll hire a student who did work study over some sucker who took an unpaid internship any day.

FYI. I work in the advertising business

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Mikhail posted on

Privet!

It seems that now-a-days there aren't too many work study "commuters" per say. And while I think it's great that you're looking out for work-study students based on personal experience, a lot of employers will only really care about the resume and prior experience. Spasibo for the response though!

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anon posted on

Per say??? Seriously?? It's per se

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Anonymous posted on

Like a lot of Columbia students (though it doesn't always feel like a lot), I am not in a financial position where I can take an unpaid internship without some kind of funding. Last semester, I participated in the WEP (the Work Exemption Program, as mentioned above). I seriously encourage everyone in a similar situation to take advantage of this opportunity. They say it's "competitive" but I suspect they're just trying to avoid giving out more money than they have to. My internship had little-to-no immediate connection to my major or my extracurricular life, and I was accepted–they are now encouraging me to apply again next semester. After spending freshman year with a shitty on-campus job, this was a liberation, and the program itself asks very little beyond a low-pressure reflection project and a fairly long application. Definitely consider it if you're bummed out about being a Butler drone for the rest of your life while your buddies from Greenwich take unpaid internships at haute couture houses or whatever.

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Anonymous posted on

Just to speak on the work exemption program. I got a grant and it was awesome, covered all of my monetary needs and let me work at a pretty awesome startup job tha gave me a ton of experience in what I want to do. I think the program is great, and if it really is limited I would just argue for expanding it if the funds are there. I had a great experience and anyone that can line up a job should be able to do it in my opinion, assuming it's economically feasible for Columbia to do.

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Anonymous posted on

As a work study student who has a lot of extra-curricular commitments, I actually appreciate that my job is not complicated or involved, and sometimes doubles up as a "paid study hall". I'm not lazy, but I am busy, and I appreciate that I can get significant financial support by doing a job that is really flexible, where my supervisors are friendly and sympathetic to my changing schedule, and where the pay is really quite disproportionate to my usefulness. Having stacked shelves and folded clothes for most of my teenage life - where pay is minimal, breaks are not negotiable and if you were caught reading a book you'd get fired - I know this is the best job I've ever had. That's maybe why I don't really appreciate the comment which seems to be so outraged that no distinction has been made between "actual" employees and student workers. You're being paid by the university, so you are an "actual" employee, and you're not doing the other employees any favors by being there. You probably slow them down - it's your job to open mail too.
My work study job may not be glamorous or exciting - but it grounds me, and reminds me of the people like my mum who works hard in a job she finds boring and is overqualified for day in, day out. We're not better, and we're not special flowers, just because we attend Columbia now.

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Anonymous posted on

I understand what you're saying and I'm not saying I'm unappreciative of my job. It's the best paying job I've ever had and I understand where you're coming from because I've worked some really crappy minimum wage food service and retail jobs before I came to Columbia. The thing is though, by being there I AM helping them out and they are helping me too. I'm actually not slowing them down. I could understand that comment if I was doing something complex that maybe I wasn't as good at or needed to go slower to accomplish but that simply isn't the case here. Opening and sorting mail is pretty basic and those of us that do that job have it down to a pretty quick system. I love my job because my supervisor doesn't mention it when I don't come in for a week or have to work strange hours in between this or that to make sure I get paid that month. My parents work hard at jobs they are undervalued for too and I'm not too good to open mail. We aren't special flowers, you're right, but we are students. And my main priority at this school is to study and make good grades. The work-study program is meant to work in tandem with that. And I think that during finals or other particularly stressful or demanding times of the year that should be taken into consideration.

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Anonymous posted on

As a former employer at the college, if I was paying someone an hourly wage, I'd want them actually doing work during that time. If there was no work to do, I wouldn't mind them studying a little during that time, but really, if it is reading week and you need to study, most of my students would cancel their shifts or make them up at another time. It's not really ok to study while you're on the clock if there's actually work to be done.

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