When you can’t afford to work

It may sound like I misspoke (or mis-typed), but not being able to afford to work is a very possible scenario and realistic problem for college students.

One thing I have learned this semester especially (my fifth of eight undergrad semesters) is that balance is key. However, working more hours and making more money is not worth losing sleep, increasing stress, and decreasing your grades. You have to be able to find a balance between all of your activities, work and school included.

I used to work Saturday and Sunday shifts in a local hospital; they were typically 8-hour shifts, and always during daylight hours, but I was always exhausted by the beginning of the next week. It wasn’t good for my health or for my grades.

This changed when I started working my second job as a library assistant. I had to find a better time balance for my full-time studies and two part-time jobs. Instead of working at the hospital two days a week, I limited it to one day a week (more on breaks). I wouldn’t always work every weekend, though. I would work every Friday at the library, where my boss was fine with me studying during my shift.

This only really worked because my boss encouraged studying during our shifts…it was a work-study job, which was part of the reason he didn’t care if we let the pile of return books get over a foot high before putting them back on the shelves. I was able to write papers, study for exams, and do the few sparse paper homework assignments I received at this job. That left me with time to work (without stress from not having my homework done) at my other job…which actually made me feel better about my performance there. I wasn’t distracted or stressed, and was able to focus on my job.

I still work at the library as a work-study, but I work at a different hospital as my other job. Transferring to another hospital also helped me in the long run; my first job was a very high-stress environment with patients who could be violent. My new hospital job is very much more relaxed and lower stress. This allowed me to find a “mental” balance and reduce the stress that I was feeling — at least from the employment aspect of me life.

But what do I mean by “can’t afford to work?”

What I mean by this is not a financial issue; I mean not being able to afford the stress and the lack of time that working causes. I already mentioned that my first hospital job was stressful and it really helped for me to transfer to a different hospital in a lower-stress environment. As for lack of time, I think students who are in my situation can understand not being able to work. If you have an especially hard semester (18 credits, hardcore science core classes and labs, etc), it is easier to rationalize to yourself why you need to cut back your hours or even quit one of your jobs. 

The biggest thing to remember about college is that no matter what, college has to be your first priority (outside of family). You are paying (or will be, if you use student loans) thousands upon thousands of dollars…if you don’t make it worth while and do the work, you’re just wasting your time and money.

So when you sit down to schedule your next semester, keep that in the back of your mind. Schedule what classes you need, and worry about talking to your boss(es) later. Especially in a college town (and doubly especially for work-study jobs), bosses have to understand that college is a full-time job that is more important at this time than a part-time job. Work-study jobs are the best solution, as the employers through these programs are required to be flexible around your class schedule (they cannot force you to work during your class times) and down time is a great time to get work or readings done.

Have you had any trouble scheduling work around classes? What did you do – work anyway or quit your job?

Financial Aid Officers (aka, your new best friends)

There are two points during the year when the words “financial aid” can throw any student in a tizzy: early spring semester —  when the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is released and due to be filled out — and late summer, as school is about to start.

I have to admit, summer financial aid stress gets me every time. Spring is easy, especially after the first year filling it out. You just update your personal and financial information (and the personal information may stay the same year to year, such as address and school attended). Summer is a whole ‘nother ball game.

Summer is when the financial aid office at your college receives your eligibility information from the government (from your FAFSA application) about how much money you will get in aid from the government. From there, the school will try to fill your need. It doesn’t always cover all of your expenses, however. My first two years of college, my father had to apply for a supplement loan in his name from the government so that I could finish paying my bill (my financial aid package just didn’t quite cover what I needed to pay for tuition, fees, room and board). That second year, even after a supplemental scholarship, I ended up paying just under a hundred dollars out of pocket to complete my payment for the academic year.

This year, my third as an undergraduate, I have done things a little differently. As soon as I filled out my FAFSA, I received my Estimated Family Contribution (or EFC, the amount of money the government’s financial aid formula calculates that you and your parents can afford to pay) which had more than doubled from the previous year….My dad had picked up overtime, my mom worked more, and I worked three jobs (ending the year with just two). The FAFSA doesn’t take into account medical expenses the family has, or our car payments, so it just looked like my family had a lot of extra money to pay for school with. 

When I saw the EFC number (8000+) and I realized I wouldn’t be eligible for a Pell Grant as I had in recent years, I contacted the only person I knew in the Financial Aid Office at my school….she just so happened to be the Assistant Director of Financial Aid (as I didn’t find out until much later). She was very patient with me, reading and replying to my emails all summer, answering all of the little questions I had. I kept her updated on my family situation and in turn, she helped me to find more loan money through the university to cover what I had left to pay. 

As of right now, I am just waiting on a $4,000 scholarship check to make its way through the city’s postal service to my university, and I will be all paid up for the year (with a small amount left over that I expect to be paid out to me! yay!) There is a $50 late fee on my account now (since the check is paying my school bill that was due on August 17th), which another Financial Aid worker offered to wave since I couldn’t make the scholarship check get there any faster.

If it hadn’t been for the help my financial aid office provided me with (this year alone, they were immensely helpful!), I probably would have had to take time off of school or take out another costly private loan. 

Talking to the Financial Aid office at your school may make you nervous, but I promise it’s worth it! Here are a few tips on how to deal with Financial Aid officers and use them to get you the best outcome possible:

  • Call early! (and often): Calling early doesn’t mean early in the morning, although there may be less student/phone traffic at that time of day. As soon as you have a question or realize there might be even the slightest problem paying for school, call your financial aid office. They can set you up with an appointment with a financial counselor, work with you to find scholarships or loans, or answer any questions you may have (or direct you to who may know the answer). Calling often is important, too; if they say they’ll look into your case and call you in two days, and it’s been five, call back. Especially if you attend a large university. My school has over 12,000 undergraduates in attendance, and every single one of them has a file in the financial aid office that might be cluttering the desk of the assistant you talked to. Give a polite, quick check-in call to make sure you didn’t get buried at the bottom of their desk’s pile.
  • Be truthful: As embarrassing as it may be to admit that your financial situation has changed since submitting your FAFSA (such as you or a parent lost a job, or wracked up a lot of medical bills or credit card debt), the financial aid officers will look at your situation objectively and not judge. Their job is to make sure you have the resources you need to be able to afford (in some fashion) to attend school. Plus, if the truth is that something terrible happened to you and your family that leaves you in dire financial straits, the financial aid officers may sympathize with you and go the extra mile for you….remember, they’re human, too.
  • The 4 “W’s” for the record book: No, I don’t mean world records or sports stats. Keeping a notebook with records of who you talked to, what day and time, where they are located, and why you called will help you keep track of who gave you what information and what promises. This isn’t just a rule I have for financial aid and school matters; it helps a lot with utility companies and insurance companies.

Have you had a financial aid officer that went the extra mile for you? What is the toughest part for you about dealing with financial aid officers?