Slice of life: Working for school, schooling for work

Slice of life: Working for school, schooling for work McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 21, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 02
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > September 21, 2000 > Slice of life: Working for school, schooling for work

Working for school, schooling for work

Despite the constant line-ups accumulating before her workstation, Katherine Tsoukanas doesn't seem frazzled by the rush of new semester students she has to register for memberships and courses at McGill's Sports Complex.

Even as she nears the end of her shift at the complex, where she works in the client services department, Tsoukanas still greets each new customer with a smile. It's a sincere, disarming smile that doesn't let on that she has been working 30-hour weeks since her return to school, all the while carrying a full courseload.

"It's been crazy these last few days," admits the 21-year-old education student. "Thank God I'll only be working about 10 hours per week when this is all over."

Photo Alexa May on duty at her waitressing job
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Thank goodness, too, that she "loves" her part-time job. Like many of her peers -- be they from McGill or other Canadian universities -- Tsoukanas must work while studying. "I have no choice," stresses the Nepean, Ont., native. "I need my job, since I already have an insane amount of loans."

Call it the fate of students: Borrow money from banks, the government and relatives to cover tuition. Then coax parents to defray part -- or all -- of the rent, books and utilities. Yet, even with all that covered, a student still has to eat, catch the occasional movie and try to remain on the fringe of fashion.

That's where jobs come in, since part-time work is usually supplemental income. "You can't pay the rent working 10 hours a week," Tsoukanas explains. "Those kind of hours help pay for little things like groceries or phone bills."

It's not surprising, then, that working students often can't afford vacations. To them, holiday time usually equals extra work time. "I haven't had a vacation since I was 15," Tsoukanas says, adding she's spent her last summers working with children -- disabled, gifted or ill -- as a camp counsellor.

Summers off are foreign to Scott Broadbent, too. The third-year microbiology and immunology student spends his holidays lifeguarding in his native Halifax. During school, he maintains a full course load and lifeguards 25 hours at the downtown YMCA.

"Even if I have a full course load," says Broadbent, "I have to work that much. I have no choice."

A quick addition of Broadbent's $4,000 in summer job savings, nearly $3,000 per semester in government loans and unspecified help from his parents and it's clear why he works so much. Just paying half the $530 rent on the apartment he shares with his girlfriend would be a problem if he worked less. Yet working more, he admits, often causes him to feel fatigued: "I sometimes find myself falling asleep in class when I work too much."

That's the kind of troublesome situation working students can encounter, says Gregg Blachford, director of McGill's Career and Placement Services. "Once a student goes over 15 hours at their job, they're getting into difficult territory," he warns, adding grades can take a plunge.

Precisely the reason, Tsoukanas says, that she doesn't take on 30-hour shifts in normal circumstances. She only made an exception this semester, since her September workload is lighter. "I would never miss classes to work," she says, noting she's kept up with her readings with her breakneck schedule. "If working means I have to stay at home for the weekend to study, I will."

Of course, working part-time isn't only about sacrifices. According to part-time waitress Alexa May, 22, having a job can be beneficial if students don't overdo it. Her first advantage is financial, she says, since her current job pays an average of $15 an hour with wages and tips. "That's the best salary I've ever had at a part-time job."

The third-year history student, who works between eight and 16 hours a week, says her job actually makes studying easier. "When I don't have a job, I tend to procrastinate with my school work," she says. "I'm much more productive when I work part-time."

Third-year anatomy and cell biology student Michele Ramien, 21, agrees working is beneficial. "Working gives me a feeling of accomplishment," she says about her job as a psychiatry research assistant at the McGill-affiliated Douglas Hospital in Verdun. "Having a job is also a learning experience. It's helping me balance my life, just like I'm going to have to balance out my career and other obligations after I graduate."

Jobs can also provide students with an excellent opportunity to acquire experience. "A perfect scenario is when students can work in jobs that are pertinent to their field of study," says Blachford. "It gives students an opportunity to form networks for post-graduation jobs. And having related experience on a CV shows future employers that the student has had a long-term interest in their field."

That's why Broadbent is taking a couple of semesters off from school to work full time as a bacteriological lab research assistant at the Jewish General Hospital. "This way I'm gaining concrete experience," he says, "by working at a job that's like a continuation of my studies."

While her job at the Department of Athletics isn't related to her studies, Tsoukanas says, it allows her to meet people, practice her spoken French and learn how to work on different computer systems.

She's also not worried about gaining pertinent experience to become an elementary school teacher, since she's accumulated references through several stages organized through her program and her experience as a camp counsellor.

As a Toronto native, May says, her current job as a waitress at a Prince Arthur St. bar has enabled her to discover Montreal. "When I wasn't working, I felt disconnected from the city," she says. "Now, I'm exposed to the city's culture, its people, and I practice my French every time I work."

Part-time work, says Ramien, can also be an effective way for undergraduates to discover what type of work they like. Or dislike. That's why she's had a slew of jobs: from ballet instructor and Students' Society receptionist to research assistant and dishwasher in a McGill pharmacology lab. "I want to see what my options are before I graduate," she says.

It's that kind of open-mindedness that makes students good employees, says Jocelin Lecomte, Ramien's research co-ordinator at the Douglas. "And students are always learning in school," he says, "so learning new job skills can be much faster for them."

Which may be one reason why United Parcel Services was recruiting students directly on campus recently. The company even distributed flashy yellow flyers promising wages beginning at $9.50 an hour, medical and dental plans and up to $1,000 in tuition reimbursements.

Michelle Riffin, a UPS human resources supervisor, says hiring students before they complete their studies is good for the company since it fosters employee loyalty. "While students usually start in entry-level positions," she says, "we encourage them to stay on after they graduate. If a student majored in management, for example, they could easily apply for a position in our management department."

The bottom line, though, is that students are often willing to work irregular shifts that full-time employees are reluctant to fill. "Students are more eager to work small shifts than someone who has to pay a mortgage," Riffin admits.

"Students will even take a lower-paying job over higher-paying work, if it's closer to campus or their homes," says Blachford. "Convenience is often the key for young people."

Sometimes, though, McGill's campus is the only place students can work. That's the case for international students who are restrained by Canada's labour laws, out-of-province students whose lack of French restricts their job prospects, or local students looking to cut transportation costs.

It's for these students -- specifically those in financial need -- that McGill's Student Aid Office established the Work-Study Program (WSP) in 1991. According to Sandy Chopko, WSP administrator, the program now offers some 700 on-campus jobs, from clerical posts to research assistant positions.

Unlike CAPS jobs, which are open to all students, WSP positions are available only to 1,100 McGill students that are considered in financial need or have received government loans. And if anyone still thinks student loans are enough to live on, think again.

"Most government loans and bursary programs provide the minimum funds that only cover tuition costs," Chopko says.

As part-time jobs have become the norm for a good chunk of students, students have come to look at their situations very positively. In May's case, she even considers work down-time and compares having a job to practicing recreational sports. "Just like sports," she says, "a job can help take a little pressure off of school."

For more information on McGill's Career and Placement Centre, please call (514) 398-3304 or consult Queries on McGill's Work-Study Program can be addressed at (514) 398-6013 or through

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