Will work for school

Broke in Berkeley

Come into the office and demonstrate your ability to transcribe. After the test, we’ll ask you some questions.”

It sounded simple enough, but I had never done it before. I chewed my pencil and desperately tried to keep up with the recording. The interviewers walked back in, and I braced myself for bad news.

“You transcribed twice as much time as we asked for, with a very high rate of accuracy. In order to be competitive, we’re going to offer you a higher hourly rate than we advertised. It’s only fair. Is that OK?”

Dumbstruck, I agreed. This was the beginning of my work-study appointment. Accustomed to being interviewed as though I had no skills and talked down when it came to money, I was blown away.

Since then, work-study has worked out perfectly for me, but it’s not as easy for everyone.

The choice between instant gratification and delayed cost or benefit is always hard. Most people choose the easy way now and accept the future reckoning rather than deny themselves satisfaction in the moment. Weightily shifting back and forth, you stare at the link to convert work-study to loans on your financial aid. Should you take a job on campus or just max out your loans and worry about paying it all back someday? The answer is: It depends.

If you have the right skills for work-study, you can land a job assisting or even participating in research in your field or one closely related to it. It can be a valuable experience to add to your resume so that you don’t emerge as a blank slate with a diploma. There are also work-study appointments for students who have never worked before — jobs like working the counter at GBC or a campus cafe. Either way, you must choose what you’re more worried about: time or money.

Your parents may object to your taking a job at all, preferring that you focus on your studies while you’re here. If they’re contributing financially to your education, take that directive seriously. However, if you can show them the benefit of work experience or explain that you are planning to decrease your overall amount of borrowed money, you may be surprised how mature they will think you sound. Telling your parents that you want to earn part of your living may cause spontaneous weeping, so be advised.

If you’re worried about time, work-study probably isn’t the answer. The hours for work-study are usually limited, and your employer will always understand that your grades will come first. However, if you’re completely overwhelmed with work and reading and can’t spare the time to have friends or sleep, you don’t want to add a part-time job to that mix. If you’re more worried about money, you can have your maximum loan amount right now and skip working for it. Just remember that it will have to be paid back in the end. Someday you’ll have a job, and you can contemplate the amount of debt you’ve racked up in college. Your future self may thank you for opting to work for the cash now rather than work it off later with interest.

One of the benefits of being at UC Berkeley is that our work-study appointments pay comparatively well — even in low-skill jobs. Working at Cafe 3 pays more than starting on the burrito line at Chipotle. Work requiring computer or language skills pays even better. Evaluate your abilities and take a look at the available jobs on the financial aid site. You may be surprised at what you find. Work-study income is also tax-free, and you don’t have to claim it when you file. It’s just a different way of getting your financial aid and a little experience to go with it.

Working your way through your degree doesn’t have to be tragic. You don’t have to take a job without connections or interesting content or dignity. My work-study job is really fun, and I’ve seen listings for others involving insects, plant studies and assisting immigrants with translation services. Anything you can do now to lessen the debt with which you will graduate is like a present you are giving your future self. Look at your financial aid carefully, and consider all your options. Work-study isn’t available to everyone or the answer to all your problems — it may be an asset you’re just not using.

Before I started at Cal, I had never considered that I might never have to take a crappy job again. My first job offer here came before I finished my degree, and it outclassed everything I have ever done in both professional respect and compensation. When I walked out of that interview, having accepted a good job at a higher rate than advertised, I knew that my professional life had changed forever. After jobs in retail and food, work-study has been an incredible change of pace. Everybody goes to college to get access to better jobs, but if you’re as lucky as I am, some of that access has already been granted. Here’s to being less broke in Berkeley. Thank you, work-study.

Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students. Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].