For some students, “work hard play hard” stops at work
EDITOR IN CHIEF
This piece is the first installment of a four-part series, to be published throughout the fall semester, taking a closer look at “the college experience.”
It was the middle of the semester when Alyssia Calhoun, a current senior at the university, found herself in Connecticut. Calhoun, from Middletown, DE., about a 30-minute drive south of the university, has no family to visit in Connecticut, nor was she on a spontaneous getaway.
Instead, she was in a car filled with high-end Italian food, just about halfway through her catering shift at Café Gelato. That “shift,” involving a round trip to and from Connecticut, totaled up to 22 hours.
In a literal full day’s work, Calhoun had knocked out half of her weekly work schedule. Throughout college, Calhoun has clocked more than 40 hours of work per week, responsible for paying rent and bills, including her phone bill, and buying food, on top of whatever other expenses college brings (this year, it was an unexpected $800 parking pass, the price paid for two years spent saving for a car). She tries not to think about her student loans, at this point exceeding $40,000.
But, to Calhoun, working the 22-hour shift, like any other shift she’s worked over the past three years, was never a question. The MCAT prep books, the MCAT fee, the MCAT practice exams, the inevitable MCAT retake, the pre-med books. None of it pays for itself, and she’s not getting any help from her parents.
Now, as a senior, Calhoun’s life isn’t quite as crazy. You’ll find her behind the Dunkin’ counter in The Scrounge and smiling, probably because her shifts can’t exceed four hours. When she’s not at Dunkin’, she’s 20 yards away, notes sprawled across a table, hitting the books and trying to make up for lost time. She lives on campus now — rent, split with her friends, whose parents fronted the bill, got too pricey — and she’s trying to make herself a competitive medical school applicant again. She’ll be taking a gap year next year.
“What else are you doing?”
Calhoun, sitting across the table from her pre-med advisor, didn’t quite know how to respond. What was she doing? She was working, then studying, then sleeping, and not doing enough of any. Her advisor asked about her extracurriculars, how many doctors she’d shadowed, if she was in any pre-professional organizations. She couldn’t have been studying that much, her advisor pointed out, circling the hard-science B-minuses on Calhoun’s transcript.
Calhoun’s advisor encouraged her to invest in an MCAT preparation course. This might mean more loans, more work, but the future was at stake, after all. Calhoun’s stepmother, though making no funding offers, had suggested the same, referring to somebody else Calhoun’s age that was paying for a tutor. And it payed off, landing this person a top score. $3,000 tutoring sessions were nothing compared to that eventual $300,000 doctor’s salary.
To Calhoun, this was the breaking point. This person, with their soaring MCAT scores, was just the person she was competing against. People who could pay their way, who knew which steps to take and had the means to take them. The pre-med crowd, Calhoun notes, is stocked with doctors’ kids. Many of them devote their energy to service projects and professional groups. They know who to shadow and when, requiring no more than a glance through their parents’ phone contacts. Well-funded and well-prepared, they have ample time to devote to studying, and don’t have to worry about paying their bills. As Calhoun can attest, “It kind of puts you in a position of failure if you’re not able to afford all of this.”
“They want it bad, but I want it bad too,” Calhoun says of her MD aspirations. But, Calhoun fears, if she can’t make it to the interview round of medical school applications, nobody will be able to know how badly she wants it, and how hard she’s worked to prove it. Working 40-hour weeks has taken a toll on her resume. Because she’s had less time to study, both for her pre-med courses and for the MCAT, her numbers aren’t competitive. She’s missing the required recommendation letters, one of which must be from a doctor she’s shadowed, something Calhoun has had no time or transportation for.
Calhoun’s medical school aspirations began her freshman year, when things weren’t quite as bad. Not yet struck by financial fear, she wasn’t working as much, and dove into her classes. After taking her first neuroscience course, she was hooked. “I loved it, the minute I took ‘Neuroscience 100,’” Calhoun recalls. “They’d say read three chapters, and I’d read the entire book.” Following some reflection, she bridged her newfound passion with a more personal motivation, setting her sights on an MD. Mental illness is pervasive on her mom’s side, and she could use her academic interests to do something about it.
Later on, even as medical school grew further from reach, there were moments of excitement. Her junior year, she got a job as a medical scribe. It wasn’t quite the pay she needed, and it was wildly impractical — without a car, she would take the DART to work, or her dad would drive up and take her there — but it was, finally, some hands-on experience.
Once her senior year began, scheduling conflicts prevented Calhoun from continuing to work the job. That’s when she picked up the position at Dunkin’.
Afia Asamoah’s family immigrated from Ghana to America two generations ago, looking to start a new life, both for themselves and the family’s future. Her family, wanting their daughter to fulfill the typical American dream, pressured Asamoah to pursue engineering or pre-med, to climb the social ladder. The money would be nice, she says, but she’s more interested in pursuing her own dream than theirs.
For Asamoah, that means juggling three jobs while she studies for her fashion merchandising major. The pressure, she says, is real. The last thing she ever wants to hear from a family member is “I told you so,” and she’s hell-bent on making sure she’s successful.
But with three jobs, though all on campus (not including the odd jobs she picks up occasionally, such as Cutco sales), that’s easier said than done. She proudly sports her RA name tag, just several weeks into her first year at the job — a job that has spared her housing expenses, and that was met with a “scream through the phone” when she broke the news to her mom.
“Daddy’s not paying my school fees, I am, so I kind of have to grow up a little bit and figure out how I’m gonna play the game and make my life easier in the long run,” Asamoah said, noting that she’s trying to put in the work now so that she can get ahead for the future.
Although trying to get ahead, she spends most of her work hours catching up. To attend the university at all, Asamoah had to take out a hefty loan — one that, due to her parents’ financial predicament, another relative had to co-sign — and having to pay it off someday often haunts her. She didn’t want to take it out, terrified of a life of debt. At the encouragement of her family, however, and particularly her mother, she budged, resolving to make the most of the college experience.
But her fears haven’t completely abated. On occasion, when Asamoah thinks about the future, she thinks about her stepsister, who, facing unemployment after her college graduation, had to return home. She hopes that she won’t share her stepsister’s fate, and she’s determined not to.
The pressures mount from multiple sides. She takes her family’s immigration seriously, conscious that they left behind loved ones in Ghana to “make a life for themselves, and for us.” She feels a need to make it up. And her Ghanaian roots are closer than two generations away. When she was a kid, Asamoah spent four years living with family in Ghana, spending the remainder of her childhood in Middletown.
But, to Asamoah, success is about more than money. Her family came here for her to be happy, she says, and despite the financial pressures and the three jobs, college is allowing her to do that. With a smile, she says she’s about to study for six hours, and, with the help of some friends, is hoping to act on her musical ambitions this year. She writes for UDress in her free time, too, which she considers a compromise — originally, she hoped to go into journalism, but rethought her ambitions when she learned of the industry’s bleak job market. She still loves to write, though, and considers UDress a constructive way to connect her love of writing with her fashion merchandising major.
For Asamoah, this is all more than enough. She doesn’t party, she says, seeing better ways to spend her time. She went to a party once, mostly hiding on the margins, and it was busted. As a black woman, she’d rather not deal with the possible consequences, and she’s not interested in wasting her limited time here, anyways. She can’t help but get a little angry when she sees people out partying, no cares in the world, letting their time in college slip away.
“They’re kind of trust fund babies,” Asamoah says, though careful not to generalize. “They don’t have a care in the world. I’m not saying this is everyone, but I don’t think they have a lot on their shoulders. Because I have a lot of people to think about, I can’t afford to do that. That to me is not the college experience. My college experience is to get my education, and I’m getting so much out of college so far.”
Caitlin Rulli recalls college visits with her parents, who would trot around like foreigners in a new world, puzzled by the living arrangements in dorms and full of naïve questions. And, really, they were in a new world. Rulli’s parents, unable to afford college after graduating high school, never got their four years of paradise, much less a higher education. They’ve found good, steady employment throughout their adult lives, navigating the world without a degree.
That world had changed by the time Rulli was finishing high school. In 2015, college was, to her understanding, the best route toward a career she wanted. She’d watched as her parents relied on less-than-ideal employment, locked into their positions with minimal mobility. Though smart with their money, no dollar was free, or easy, a lesson they made a point to instill in their daughter.
To Rulli, then, college was opportunity. There was never any question about whether she would attend college. The question was “where,” and her parents thought that the answer was clear. A cheap, local community college was more than enough. When Rulli settled on UD, an out-of-state institution that would require taking out a considerable amount in loans, the response was not necessarily warm.
“That’s definitely a choice I had to make, and I think it’s a horrible choice for any 18-year-old to have to make,” Rulli says. “My mom made it abundantly clear what I was getting myself into.”
Rulli projects that her debt will double by the time she can pay her loans off. Of course, it could be worse — she earned a scholarship and receives a modest amount of financial aid. But, when looking over the cost of college for next semester with her mother recently, the sum was “not a fun number.” There’s also a possibility that she’ll have to attend grad school to get a job in her chosen field, dietetics, sure to double the burden.
That day, she had worked three shifts, at three different jobs, and was en route to down a pizza at Russell before passing out at home. Lately, she’s been “picking up shifts left and right,” capitalizing on the increasingly frequent absence of her coworkers as the year gets underway. But she doesn’t mind any of it, an attitude that she attributes to her first-gen perspective. Rulli thinks that many students see college as a “given,” an inevitability of sorts, noticing a difference even in how others talk about college, as though it was never a question.
“For me, it’s brand new,” Rulli says. “They [other people] go to football games with their parents, and they have Gettysburg gear and they have their reunions at Duke and bring their kids along. It’s just so other-worldly to me. I don’t want to call it ‘entitlement,’ but they’re like ‘yeah, I’m going to college,’ and for me it’s like ‘Am I going to college? Or am I going to the college that I want to?’”
Neither Calhoun, Asamoah, nor Rulli had to do any of this. They had other, cheaper options, such as commuting or community college. But, according to all available information, college was the best way to take the next step, to make a better life for themselves than their parents had. It’s an outdated, but very American, mindset, in a country with frozen class mobility and in which social reproduction guarantees that doctors’ kids become doctors, lawyers’ kids become lawyers, and the privileged retain their privilege. But the sentiment of hope, the belief that people can carve their own lives and defy circumstance, remains strong as ever. And, for these three, the opportunity to do that with college was never a given, requiring thousands in loans and picking up jobs wherever possible. Though they’ve made it here, the future is a gamble.
To Asamoah and Rulli, it’s been worth every penny. Rulli has made the most of her college experience, traveling as a World Scholar to Spain her freshman year, with plans to go to Rome this spring. She’s found a family with the World Scholars, and she thinks that going away for school and being independent has, more than anything, helped her become an adult, bringing her opportunity her parents couldn’t have dreamed of. Asamoah would like to study abroad too, and has fun dancing, talking with professors, writing for UDress and getting food with friends. She loves her life here, and while her career plans remain undecided, that’s only because she keeps coming up with more possibilities.
Calhoun’s take, with the perspective of a senior, is different. At this point, a medical career is still on her agenda, and college is, obviously, the only available route. And, should everything work out, there’s a lot more to come, including an additional several hundred thousand dollars of debt. Having thought about every penny put toward college, she’s not convinced it was worth it. But then she thinks about her dad. How he lucked out on pay for somebody without a college degree, yet still makes relatively little and works a job she doesn’t consider ideal.
“Worth it? No, I don’t think it’s worth it,” Calhoun says. “I would still say it’s worth it to go get an education outside of high school. I don’t think this is worth it for the price you pay. With the current norms, you don’t really have any other options. They make it so that, if you want a good-paying job, you have to go to college.”
Even still, Calhoun says there’s a lot she wishes she had known when she was 18.