Students learn suffering, self-sufficiency

Do you know the struggle? Sources say it can be real. Across the United States, there is a group of people who know the interior of the struggle bus very well: college students.

Older generations like to reminisce about college as “the glory days” or “the best years” of their lives, and post-graduation life is notorious for being less fun and more responsibility than the “carefree” semesters of an undergrad. However, between working full or part-time jobs, classes, loans, homework, social lives, loans, down time, getting a few hours’ sleep, extracurricular activities and loans, today’s students find themselves under an immense amount of pressure. Some are fortunate enough to receive assistance from their parents or from scholarships – but many are not. Making ends meet can be especially difficult in hot spots like Charleston, where the average two-bedroom apartment costs up to $1435 in rent, according to trend data on RentJungle.com.

“I work a full time job, go to school and don’t live at home. My parents can’t afford to help,” EMT trainee Kayla Owens said. “My mom makes too much on paper for me to get financial aid, so it’s pay as I go out-of-pocket.”

Van Cauwenberghe's collection of used DVDs for reselling.

Van Cauwenberghe’s collection of used DVDs for reselling. (Photo courtesy of Van Cauwenberghe)

Plenty of students have monthly payments on tuition or loans, alongside rent, utilities, food and other basic necessities including clothes, gas, insurance and unexpected expenses.

“I’m working 47 hours a week to pay my bills and get through school,” Owens said. “And the thought passes through my mind every day, ‘You just can’t afford it, you need to find something else or drop to part-time schooling.’ It’s next to impossible to keep up.”

Sophomore Isaiah Glenn can relate. “I find that I have to work two jobs for every one semester that I go to school,” Glenn said. “It is true that there are scholarships out there to help people with low incomes, but I was dangerously sick the last couple months of my senior year in high school and most of my freshman in college, which hurt my grades horrifically, so a scholarship is kind of out of my reach at the moment.”

Students like Owens and Glenn show that even working overtime or getting tips does not make budgeting any easier in the current economic state of America. The Economic Policy Institute found in a recent report that “minimum wage workers make far below the average cost of living in over 600 metropolitan areas.” If students are spending 30 or 40 hours a week at work, how does that affect their academic lives, participation in campus clubs and activities, and ability to complete internships that provide experience and opportunities?

Alumni Katie Babb said, “If the minimum wage were higher, students could get away with working fewer hours and have more time to devote to internships, academics, clubs and really get the full college experience. I loved College of Charleston, but sometimes I felt like work kept me from really immersing myself in campus life, and you really only get that chance once in a lifetime.”

A couple students not covered by their parents’ health care plans express concern over affordable health insurance.

“The problem I run into the most is not having the income to qualify for most things, such as insurance, a new apartment, credit banking or even a new car,” Glenn said. “Then there is the issue, after budgeting heavily and saving for college, bills and food, [of having] nothing left to pay for healthcare.”

On the bright side, not all students have such a hard time supporting themselves. Some find creative ways around getting a regular serving or retail gig. Junior Justin Sabree co-owns Charleston Party Pros, a limo service. Sabree said he usually manages to make good grades despite time spent in his office or promoting his business.

“I started my first business from the ground up in 2011, but I currently have a limo company which I started in late December 2014,” Sabree said. “I’m very persistent. If I’m not going to school, I’m handling business transactions for the company or riding around in the limo promoting. Good thing about being a business owner is I make my own hours.”

Senior Johan Van Cauwenberghe also built his own business buying goods from consignment shops around Charleston and reselling them online: “I’ve refined my process to maximize my profit potential. That’s become profitable enough to support an entire apartment and a part-time employee.”

Sabree nonetheless notes that his fellow students do not always possess the entrepreneurial skills needed to create businesses and escape menial jobs. Van Cauwenberghe, who was born in Belgium, has some thoughts on U.S. education policies.

“I think if [the United States] spent less on things like defense and more on education,” Van Cauwenberghe said, “we’d be in better shape academically. I think we could take notes from many other countries in the world on that. A smarter population leads to better growth and better GDP.”

Indeed, in most European countries, tuition is free or subsidized, and countries such as Denmark even provide living stipends called “State Education Support” to resident students, according to the Study In Denmark website. Meanwhile, in the United States: “Yeah, If I wasn’t in the situation I’m in right now, school and work, the two would be very hard,” Sabree said. “You have to go to work to provide for any extra activities you want to do, and schoolwork is hard to do by itself. It’s very challenging. I am somewhat on that level, but not compared to other students that have to do that.”

Sophomore Matthew K. firmly believes in the benefits of the workforce, but has no comment on whether the minimum wage should be raised.

“You should learn what it means to work for yourself. It builds character,” K. said. “You have to deal with things that you don’t come across in school, real life problems [that have] no written-down solution. [You’re] talking to people, not just professors or students.”

It remains a fact that aside from loans with high interest rates, there is little assistance for the American college student. If the American dream is to bring oneself up by the bootstraps, the working poor of this country’s colleges and universities are living it out. And with a minimal to medium amount of crying to boot.

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