This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
My Introduction to the Work-Study Program
In late 1988, I visited Oberlin College as a prospective student and quickly knew that the institution would be an excellent fit for my academic and personal interests; however, my family wondered how we would ever afford a private education. I was awarded a financial aid package that included the typical components of an endowment-based scholarship, a Pell Grant, student loans, Federal Work-Study and expected family contribution; though it was not always easy, we funded my education through these components.
Work-Study proved to be an integral source of income and opportunity throughout my student experience. The Federal Work-Study Program was created as part of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to provide part-time employment for students with demonstrated financial need at American higher education institutions, or in positions related to a student’s education objective. A 1972 revision expanded the scope of the program, enabling students to hold Work-Study positions at community agencies.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 3,400 American post-secondary institutions currently offer Work-Study positions that cannot pay less than the federal minimum wage. Students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year to determine whether they are eligible for Work-Study and other federally-funded student aid.
Stuffing Envelopes and Tacos Count for Job Skills, Too
Prior to college, I knew that many students worked on campus, but I assumed that their jobs that probably did not correspond to their’ career interests. I now know that Work-Study can strategically help students gain work experience relevant to their career goals, which in turn can be an asset in the eyes of future employers and on graduate school applications.
My journey toward successfully integrating my professional and academic goals into Work-Study was rather bumpy at times. Aside from occasional housecleaning and babysitting jobs, I had gained almost no work experience in high school because I lacked transportation. (Having a part-time job in my rural hometown required a car because we were a 20-minute drive from the nearest city.)
Because I had never had a part-time job, I did not know how to look for an on-campus job or prepare for interviews. I visited Oberlin’s student employment office and scanned available jobs, including a position in the library. I imagined that the quiet work environment would be ideal, but my interview for that position was weak because I did not know how to anticipate or generate questions during a professional interview.
With the library opportunity closed, I pursued positions in campus mailing services and the dining hall. The mailing job involved stuffing envelopes and making photocopies for college mailings, and I managed the taco bar in one of the campus dining halls. These jobs were monotonous, but I gained general, transferable job skills: I learned how to be punctual for shifts, work in teams and use constructive criticism to improve my work performance.
Connecting Work-Study to a Career Path
Although these two Work-Study positions helped me develop general job skills, I wondered how I might incorporate my career interests in journalism and media research into my work experiences. I found the answer through a short-term campus media internship during the January intercession of my sophomore year. Oberlin’s Winter Term program offers students opportunities to complete self-directed educational projects, individually or as part of a group. These projects can explore academic, personal and/or career interests on or off campus. Students can complete an internship, take instruction in a musical instrument, conduct academic research or learn a foreign language, among many other possibilities. Some students even complete a project abroad.
Early in my sophomore year, I approached the Oberlin alumni magazine about completing a Winter Term editorial internship. This invaluable experience introduced me to the operation of a small magazine. I copy edited, wrote news notices, managed office mail and even wrote a features article.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I asked the magazine editors if I could continue working there in a Work-Study position during the school year, and to my delight, they agreed. I remained with the magazine until the summer after my senior year. The position enabled me to secure other journalism internships (including several in New York and Washington, D.C.) and eventually strengthened my applications to schools of journalism.
Where to Look for Work-Study Jobs on Campus
Now, as a college professor, I advise students to turn Work-Study placements into opportunities to explore career interests and develop professional skills. What I did not know at the beginning of my college career is that campus offices, academic departments and organizations employ student workers. At Hope College where I work, students are employed in labs, offices of academic departments, athletics, dining services, student development, campus media, event planning, instructional technology, tutoring and many other places.
Some students combine internships and Work-Study. It is not uncommon for a campus outlet to label a Work-Study position as an internship. If a student performs well in an internship, he or she can often continue in that position into the next school year through a Work-Study placement.
Students often ask me if they should list Work-Study positions on their resumes. While you don’t need to specify that these jobs were Work-study positions on your resume, you could discuss this in the interview.
Building A Professional Network
In addition to providing valuable employment experience, Work-Study positions can help students establish professional networks. Working for a campus office or organization exposes students to how multiple entities fit into a larger professional organization. Students may well come into contact with faculty and staff from other campus offices, which could lead to additional professional and academic opportunities.
When I worked for the alumni magazine, I met staff from the college’s communication office and later wrote for the employee newsletter. Several staff members also served as references for my graduate school applications. We are still in touch and I enjoy keeping them updated on my career–a career they played a pivotal role in shaping.
Finally, Work-Study experience can provide opportunities to locate professional mentors. If you work for a campus office or organization that corresponds to your academic and/or career interests, your supervisor and other colleagues are important sources of information. Ask them about their career paths and your own: What courses did they take in college? Do they recommend graduate school and, if so, where did they attend? What campus opportunities can enhance your professional portfolio? Also, inquire about up-and-coming developments in your field. Many times, your colleagues will welcome your genuine interest in their careers.
I am grateful for my college Work-Study positions, which gave me initial employment experience and helped clarify my career path. Through Work-Study, I learned how to better manage my time, build self-confidence and identify my career interests. Rather than viewing Work-Study as just an ordinary component of a financial aid package, I encourage students to approach this opportunity with an open mind and a creative willingness to learn in sometimes unexpected places.