Magazine Article (Cosmopolitan) - Education is a Luxury: What I Learned As A Working Student at An Elite Research University

Education is a Luxury: What I Learned As A Working Student at An Elite Research University

I sprinted into my night class, one sneaker on my foot and the other in my hand. The rest of the class was already there, chatting and waiting for our professor to begin. My classmate, Amy, glanced over at me, then did a double take. 

“Why are you carrying your shoe? And what the hell happened to it?”

I didn’t have time to answer as class started. I quickly shoved my sneaker back on and snuck out the roll of duct tape I had borrowed from the Writing Center where I had just completed an 8-hour shift. My sneaker had giant holes on both sides and smelled like sewage. One of the sides had broken loose right before my tutoring shift ended. I needed to fix them up before heading into my 8-hour pizza delivery shift after night class.

Class began. As a graduate visual communication class, we were practicing making videos with Adobe products. Jake presented his first. He stood at the front of the class, bright yellow Nike sneakers on his feet.

“I focused my video on Nike’s marketing. I decided to use all the Nike shoes I own for my images,” Jake smiled and pointed down at his shoes.

Our professor nodded. “How many pairs do you own?”

“Oh, I own about forty pairs. All different colors.”

I ripped off another piece of duct tape, the tearing sound a little more audible than before. Amy pointed and giggled as she watched me. I pressed the tape onto the holes of the only sneakers I owned. After I finished, I continued staring down and quietly pushed my Dominoes uniform a little deeper into my book bag. 

Jake played his video of his Nike shoes. I pulled my feet underneath my chair. Amy giggled again.

This experience, and many more like it, filled my graduate school days.

While my peers spent time working on homework and purchasing Starbuck’s lattes with their parents’ credit cards, I was learning what it means to be a working student at an elite research university with a wealthy, upper-class student body. 

I spent my days rushing from an assistantship to class to working 40 hours a week at a local Dominos pizza shop. I crammed homework and sleep in the few hours that were left over, but I quickly realized that college, especially graduate school, is a luxury. 

Despite having an assistantship that paid my tuition, I was still struggling to afford housing, food, books, and universities fees. I often had to pick between completing homework or working. Some days I didn’t eat in order to stretch dollars further. Other days I didn’t sleep in order to squeeze in every once of time I had left for studying. I tried to find audio recordings of the books assigned for my classes so I could listen to readings while delivering pizza.

During my interaction with my peers and professors. I often heard comments about my clothes, the poor quality of my education (I attended a high school that offered only one AP course), and my lack of travel experience. Despite my best attempts to mentally block out the distractions, it was difficult to not feel isolated and unworthy of a graduate education.

But, despite the challenges I faced as a working student, I pushed forward. I graduated, but I retained little from most of my classes due to exhaustion and the decisions I had to make on where to spend my time in order to survive. I was able to complete the necessary requirements needed to graduate, but my actual learning suffered. 

The greatest lessons I learned were not in the syllabi or content covered in class. I learned that students from backgrounds similar to mine often struggle to afford their education, even though they need it most to change their class status and to help fill the education gaps that linger from growing up in a substandard public education system.

I learned that my work ethic and ability to persevere through hard times and difficult people were more important than the clothes I was wearing or the name dropping I didn’t and couldn’t participate in.

And most importantly, I learned that I could evolve as a person without totally losing sight of who I am. Though I would never want to return to the smelly-sneaker grind of those graduate school years at a very wealthy, very white research university, I don’t regret how I allowed it to change me for the better. I’ve become a more empathic, thoughtful, and overall stronger person because of my time facing a system that benefits the wealthy and continues to become increasingly unattainable for the middle and working classes.