BY CHLOE JENSEN '20
The culture of extracurricular and co-curricular involvement is one that often circumstantially excludes working-class students. In the world of elite colleges and universities, volunteer and extracurricular work seem to hold more value than paid work.
When I began my application process, I distinctly remember what every guidance counselor and admissions dean had said about the model applicant: someone who spent their free time involved in enriching activities like student government, varsity sports, music or volunteer and charity work. This model student rarely, if ever, had a part-time job or regularly worked paid hours.
Upon hearing about these students, I always worried how college admissions counselors would perceive my application if most of my free hours had been spent in the grocery store, working as a cashier for $9.47 an hour, rather than leading my high school’s student government meetings.
Minimum wage or entry-level labor is not enriching, useful or as glamorous as unpaid internships and leadership positions in high school activities. The jobs that high school and college aged students can get are considered low-skill and minimum wage. That is, one does not need a degree or a high level of training in order to obtain them. In many elite institutions, such as Mount Holyoke, these are undervalued. They are jobs, but anyone can acquire the skills it takes to make coffee, scan groceries, clean offices or flip burgers: these jobs are not special.
Extracurriculars, however, are seen as important and noteworthy: they display interest, dedication and a specialized talent in a certain area. Debate, student government, soccer, playing the flute and volunteer tutoring show not only passion but are also activities in which students acquire skills and talents and apply them to their academic or campus success. And while students certainly gain many of these valuable skills in minimum wage work, these kinds of work opportunities are not taken anywhere near as seriously.
Throughout high school and college, I spent most of my free time working. By the time I was old enough to work, my mother expected me to contribute to bills and school fees. During my last two years of high school, I was slammed with many additional costs such as fees and textbooks associated with dual enrollment, standardized tests and college applications, as well as the funds I desperately needed to start saving for college a few years later.
These costs often accumulated to hundreds of dollars over the course of my junior and senior years of high school; costs that my mother’s single income could not account for alone. In order to succeed in the college application process, I needed to sacrifice some of my time to working in a paid position.
Extracurriculars are often too expensive or inaccessible for low-income families to partake in. In high school, I remember wanting to join the speech and debate team, only to find that the mandatory fees were several hundred dollars each semester, with limited scholarships available.
This is often the reality with other activities as well, for instance sports, dance and other student clubs. And while scholarships and financial assistance from the school may cover some of the initial fees, families and students are often expected to provide transportation, fundraise, pay for equipment, and so on. These hidden fees can create barriers to low-income students’ ability to partake in said activities.
These attitudes continue beyond the college application process and into the world of networking and career success at Mount Holyoke. Very often, leadership positions in campus organizations are treated with the same level of prestige as similar high school activities, while washing dishes in the dining halls or working part time at CVS is perceived as just another low-skill job. These jobs are not impressive to internships or graduate schools and are perceived as a waste of time.
With both the inaccessible nature of extracurriculars and the undervaluing of low-wage labor, low-income students have even more of a disadvantage when they enter the career force than their wealthy or upper-middle class peers. Rather than spending their time in enriching, costly extracurriculars, they have to wait tables or flip burgers to make ends meet.
During the three months I worked as a cashier, I learned many skills besides operating basic computing systems and counting money: I learned how to be patient with hostile customers, how to improvise and help customers or my coworkers find important items and how to be dedicated and determined enough to complete a long day of work. These are valuable life skills that I continue to carry with me to my studies at Mount Holyoke.
In many ways, I would say that I learned more working as a cashier for a summer than I did as the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Yet, despite the valuable skills I may have gained, holding a leadership position in a school club will almost always appear more noteworthy than a minimum-wage summer job.
Low-income students needing to work rather than engage in extracurricular activities will continue to be a reality, despite the efforts of Mount Holyoke and other elite institutions. What they can do, however, is begin to acknowledge the value, hard work and dedication in low-wage jobs, both during the college application process and beyond.