The college experience has been transformed by the pandemic: Students are no longer studying in libraries, spending their weekends at wild fraternity parties, navigating clubs and stressing about midterms while planning their semester abroad.
The pressure to do well in school seems to disregard the fact that young people are rarely just students anymore.
But for me, and around 70 percent of my fellow full-time students who also work while attending college, this was never really our college experience. For me, the college experience has meant scheduling my classes around my 20-hour work week, spending Friday nights in my dorm writing cover letters for the next internship cycle and desperate attempts to keep my grades up all while my exhausted mind drifts to my work during lectures.
Work-life balance as a college student is difficult to parse in the best of the times, but right now, it feels almost impossible. And the pressure to do well in school seems to disregard the fact that young people are rarely just students anymore.
Although scholastics are stereotypically all about getting as many A’s as possible, for a majority of students, grades are the least of their problems. For low-income students — who are disproportionately Black, Latino and first-generation students — a lack of internet access, increased financial burdens and unstable living situations have made prioritizing school even harder.
For those of us lucky enough to have financial security in college, the reality of a competitive job market prioritizes part-time jobs and internships. Studies have shown that college internships in relevant fields lead to higher wages, lower unemployment and enhanced employability after college, leading more students to seek out these opportunities and focus less on academics.
A 2017 Gallup study noted that students who had a relevant job or internship while in college were two times more likely to find a job immediately after graduation. These days, it feels like students need to score a prestigious internship in order to have a fighting chance to get a job after graduation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself talking to classmates about ways to make our résumés stand out to recruiters by using a different font or how to properly contact a recruiter to see if you can’t get an extra advantage.
And like all things, the pandemic has impacted our job prospects: Internship programs, especially during the summer, were canceled or heavily pared down, and remote offices mean students are no longer getting the same first experience of an office environment. More importantly, record-breaking unemployment numbers and companies' budgetary restrictions have left recent graduates suddenly scrambling for any job they can get.
I saw friends who had spent their entire college careers working day and night to land their dream job move back in with their parents; people who I admired because they had my dream résumé, full of internships and experience, have their careers upended by the pandemic; honor roll students, who had written award-winning theses, struggle with what to do next.
Even those with perfect plans for how post-grad life will look couldn’t have planned for this. Among many other things, the pandemic was a jarring reminder that no matter how hard you try, anything can derail your dreams. I’ve had many people tell me I am lucky to not be a 2020 grad — I still have time to bulk up my résumé before I graduate, and I should take any opportunity I am given.
This advice led me to take five classes this past summer, a full course load plus one, while I freelanced for other news outlets in an attempt to salvage my summer after my internship was canceled due to the coronavirus. This fall semester, I’m working more hours than I ever have while juggling a full load of remote classes and a part-time internship at NBC News.
My peers and I often discuss Zoom fatigue in breakout rooms instead of talking about the material assigned in class — we’re all tired, scared about what happens next and struggling to focus.
Yet, I still feel an insurmountable pressure to be the perfect student. I balance writing a 10-page paper during a full workday by waking up at 6 in the morning to finish a draft that I can look over at 11 at night. I feel terrible when I’m not able to finish my readings in time, which means I sit in lecture unable to contribute to the discussion. I still strive to get good grades, because it feels wrong to write off college completely. The perfectionist in me wants to excel at everything, and I feel guilty if I don’t try in class. After all, I am paying to take these courses.
I’m also finally learning that it is OK if I’m not the best student in every class in every semester.
But I’m also finally learning that it is OK if I’m not the best student in every class in every semester and that taking a night off is important for my mental health. It's been a hard but important lesson.
I sometimes wish I could take each of my professors aside and tell them that I’m not really a bad student. I wish I could promise them that I’m not actually like this — that I know how privileged I am to be attending such a prestigious university and that I love learning. But I can’t tell them that, so I just promise myself that one day, when I finally have the time, I’ll reread the texts they assigned.
The pandemic has revealed a lot about higher education and its privileges. In particular, it has widened the gap between students who have other responsibilities and those who don’t. Whether it's supporting themselves and their families or working a part-time internship or part-time job, students are performing a high-stakes balancing act.
Abolishing unpaid internships and other barriers for college students to get higher-paying, experience-building jobs is just one way colleges can acknowledge their students’ needs right now. Ultimately, it’s become clear to me that college is so much more than the classes you take — or the grades you get in them.