My Year in Scholastic Indentured Servitude

Work-study was my way to a college education. But was spending time on a useless, low-paid job really worth it?

Photo: Andy Sacks/Getty Images

Ask someone about the worst job they ever had and you’re likely in for a story. A babysitting gig from hell. A Steinbeck-esque tale about toiling in a fish-canning factory. Workplace bullying. Sexual harassment. Safety violations. Unreasonable demands. Unpaid overtime.

I’ve had some bad jobs, but to be honest, I’m not even sure my worst job qualifies as a job since I didn’t get paid. In the most generous terms, I bartered my time for passage into higher education. In the harshest terms, you might call it indentured servitude.

College was sold to millennials as a necessity — the operative word here is “sold.” Hundreds of thousands of us are carrying the cost of this successful PR campaign. Compared to many of my peers, I don’t have a huge amount of student debt, but it’s enough so that every time I see the words “student loan forgiveness” in the news, I get a pleasurable tingle down my spine.

Whether we’ll ever see any relief remains a mystery, but the internet loves to debate the topic. Someone will inevitably jump into the comments section with, “I paid off my loans, so why should other people get a break?” Other people, my people, will point out how annoying this is. Why wish ill on others because you had a tough time?

But the thing that annoys me most within this discourse is the sentiment that “not everyone needs to go to college.” I don’t disagree with this premise — on a surface level, I very much believe it’s true. There are endless useful things to do in this world that do not require a four-year college education. And there are many roles that should be open to people with diverse backgrounds, instead of just those with precise educational credentials. What’s implied in the “not everyone needs to go to college” argument is that not all poor people need to go to college. After all, if you can pay for it, what difference does it make? It’s just another way to spend your money and your time. It’s only the people who can’t pay the costs outright for whom it might be worth pursuing a different path in life.

There’s a level of practicality here. People who have to repay loans are going to find life more challenging than those who don’t. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. And it’s worth noting that the same people often touting this argument are those who have lived to tell the tale. Those who regret going to college. Who mourn the subsequent years spent suffering, settling the bill for the investment that never paid those promised dividends. Who feel they were scammed. Of course, their experiences are valid. Many people were scammed.

But there remain many of us for whom college means something more. People who don’t have the funds, people who might never have the funds, but who want to go anyway. College is not for everyone, but it is for some of us—even those who can’t afford it.

I didn’t decide to go to college until I was a senior in high school. Neither of my parents had gone to college, and while I gave a lot of thought to what my future might look like in a general sense — I wanted to be an artist and writer, live in a cool loft apartment in a city, and have a foreign boyfriend — I didn’t really grasp what I needed to do to make any of that happen. Like many teenagers, I half-believed I’d never actually see high school end.

By the second semester of my senior year, I realized I needed to get my ass in gear. I applied in February to a small state university I’d heard a classmate talk about, was accepted by March, and was offered a couple of merit-based partial scholarships in April. To make up the shortfall, I asked my dad to fill out the FAFSA. I was offered a financial aid package, consisting of a Pell Grant, subsidized student loans, and a work-study offer.

Work-study is a federal program that provides funding to schools to employ students. Eligible jobs are usually, but not always, on campus and meant to fit around students’ class schedules. Of course, being awarded a work-study offer doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a job — you still have to apply and get hired, and positions are limited.

As soon as I arrived on campus, I put in applications at the library, the fitness center, and the dormitory reception desks — the plum positions. Crickets. I applied for tutoring jobs, research assistant positions, anything I found on the online portal, even jobs that weren’t eligible for work-study. Money was money, and I had a bill to pay. With no car and no reliable transportation, I knew that off-campus work would be a challenge, but I put in applications at the few businesses within walking distance of the campus. More crickets. I began losing sleep and experiencing heart palpitations. Finally, I received a call back from the school’s alumni association. They wanted to interview me, and then they wanted to hire me.

For three afternoons a week and the entirety of every Friday, I sat in business-casual clothes in a glass cubicle in a small house-turned-office next to my high-rise dormitory. My boss was the only full-time employee. My role consisted of updating contact details in the alumni database; at most, three or four of these change-of-address notices came in per day. Once every shift, I drove a golf cart across campus to the student center, where I’d check the association’s campus mailbox. On my way, I’d regularly zip past classmates, picnicking or socializing or on their way to the library. Everyone would smile and we’d all go, “Haha, isn’t this funny, me on this golf cart?” but it didn’t feel funny. I didn’t want to be driving a golf cart. I wanted to be sitting in the sun studying and drinking Diet Coke.

College is not for everyone, but it is for some of us—even those who can’t afford it.

This was it, the whole job. As you can imagine, these tasks did not fill 20 hours per week. It was usually a stretch to fill 30 minutes. But oddly for an on-campus job, I wasn’t allowed to do anything else — no homework, no reading or studying, no listening to headphones, no looking at the internet. I was instructed just to sit there.

Despite my anti-authoritarian views and attitude, I have almost always been a rule-follower in practice, especially when it comes to employment. I’ve also always accepted the premise that rules exist for a reason, but I could find no discernible reason for my work, and weeks on, I began to falter. I’d hide a notebook or textbook in my lap under the desk, my ears attuned to any potential movement in the office. With shifty eyes and shaky hands, I’d log onto news websites and read articles, immediately deleting the browsing history, covering my wayward tracks.

For many, many hours, I did just sit there, in an eerily silent and near-empty office, blinds drawn to keep out the beating Texas sun. I sat and thought about my classwork. I thought about the stories I wanted to write. The places I wanted to go, once I was freed from this solitary confinement, once I had my degree.

I thought about the past. My high school food service job, the clunker of a car that had given up the ghost a few weeks before I left for college. I considered the present, feeling stranded on this strange, desert-island campus, filling this absurd, charity-case position.

I thought about the alternative timelines. The freshman year experience I might have had if I had been someone else. The extracurriculars I’d participate in, the friends I’d make, the fun jobs I’d take. My roommate had a cute car, worked a few shifts a week in a pan-Asian fast-food restaurant, and spent her paychecks at the mall. Many more of my classmates were jobless; their parents wanted them to spend their first year focusing on their academics. They hung out in each other’s dorm rooms, listening to playlists they’d made on iTunes, quizzing each other with flashcards, gossiping about boys.

And here I was, bored but not badly positioned. I had escaped my hometown, my statistical fate. I wasn’t working in a fish-canning factory, or babysitting the spawn of Satan, or laboring on a construction site, or falling victim to a psychopathic boss. But I still felt a tinge of sadness, a sense of loss, the presence of a ghost that would haunt me throughout my college education as I worked worse jobs and accrued more and more debt. As I watched the people for whom it came easy, I wondered if it would always be this hard.

With work-study jobs, your wages can be paid directly to you, but because I still had a significant shortfall in my tuition and fees, I set up my wages to go directly to the school. This meant I was “working” this $5.50/hour job for 20 hours a week and I never saw a dime.

Over the academic year, this job paid around $3,000 of my tuition bill, a fifth of my total costs. And as it turned out, I still owed around $500 in cash per semester. When I discovered I’d botched the math a week ahead of the payment deadline, I didn’t answer my mom’s calls for a few days. I knew my parents didn’t have the money, and I feared my dad’s reaction. Publicly, he always seemed proud that I’d gone to college, but privately, he acted irritated with me, burdening him like this. I can’t remember how the eventual conversation played out, but I vividly remember the shame. Here I was trying to make things better for myself, and I’d already messed it all up, making life harder for my family. Ultimately, my mom borrowed the money from my grandparents, and she never brought it up to me again. I don’t even know if she told my dad.

I felt a tinge of sadness throughout my college education as I worked worse jobs. I watched the people for whom it came easy and wondered if it would always be this hard.

Fifteen years on, I am fully aware my experience wasn’t that bad. People do far, far worse things to pay for college. In and of itself, it doesn’t even really make a good story — I had to sit in a cubicle for 20 hours a week, doing nothing, the end. There’s no drama; there’s no “there, there.”

But to me, this odd piece of my past highlights something else: the difference between who I am now and who I was then. This difference was made possible by the very education that made my life more difficult for all of those years. My present self has the luxury of understanding trade-offs — a liberal arts education might not buy you a big house, but if you play your cards right, it can buy you access to a world and life you once only dreamed of. For me, college was the only clear path to get from A to B.

While my past self put in the hours, my present self would just take out another loan, even if it was a private, higher-interest one. After all, this would’ve bought me a significantly better experience, and what difference would a few thousand more dollars of debt really make? However, as a first-generation student and someone with the financial literacy of a child, I didn’t even know this was an option at the time. I only knew what the FAFSA told me — this is what we have for someone like you, accept it or don’t.

There’s a scene in the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere in which one character says to another, “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices.” For those of us who want to go to college, for those of us who see no other way, these words ring true. We don’t necessarily make good choices because we don’t have good choices to make. We know this path will be challenging and expensive. We know we’ll have to work twice as hard as our more fortunate classmates, both in and out of the classroom. We know there will be people who look down on us and people who will tell us we’ve made a terrible financial mistake. We know that our salaries might never surpass those of our friends who took up trades, and we know that lawmakers might never give us a break.

We know, but still, we go, and we make the best of the choices we’re given. Because for some of us, that’s the only choice we have.

Just another 30-something writing about the internet, nostalgia, culture, entertainment, and life. Author, screenwriter, copywriter. www.carlyjhallman.com

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