The myth of work-life balance for low-income students

BY APRILL EMIG | the Statesman Brandon Smith works 13 hours a week, but it’s not nearly enough to pay the bills.

“I can only work so much during the school year, so I work a ton in the summer,” Smith said.

In his four years of college, he’s racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt. He ends up paying off his credit card debt every summer only to give himself room to fill it up the following semester.

“It’s really a never-ending cycle,” Smith said.

Smith’s story is common for many students today. According to U.S. Census Data in 2011, 71 percent of undergraduates were employed. Of that number, one in five were working at least 35 hours a week. On top of the average $30,000 student loan debt they’ll graduate with, an additional $3,000 of debt will be from credit cards, according to a 2013 study by Fidelity.

For some students like Smith, the credit card, which can often be used to pick up an extra sweater or a night out, is the only way to help make ends meet.

“I literally only use (my credit card) for needs,” Smith said. “I’ve mostly had to use it to fix my vehicles. Those repairs add up really fast, but I can’t avoid it. I need a car to get to work.”

The alternative is to pick up more hours at work, but that will cut into Smith’s ability to finish school on time and get a teaching job. It’s a difficult decision to fulfill the financial needs of right now or pile up even more debt to help keep the focus on the end goal.

This is especially apparent for Smith as he is majoring in music education. Taking 15 credits a semester fills up his entire schedule.

“It’s just different than other majors because we have so many ensembles we need to be in,” Smith said. “So I meet for band three times a week, over two hours per class, but it’s only one credit. That’s how it all goes.”

This stress can take a toll on students enrolled in as many as 13 credits a semester. According to a 2011 study done by American College Health Association, 15.3 percent of UMD students said needing to work negatively impacted their academics.

Dori Decker, health educator at UMD, finds this alarming.

“I hate to see academics suffer because that impacts them in the long term by not getting the information they need for their careers,” she said.

In that same study, 30 percent of UMD students said their education suffered due to stress-related difficulties.

“Chronic stress (specifically the stress hormones) can take a toll on our immune system,” Decker said. “When we are chronically stressed, our immune response can be suppressed and we can fall ill more frequently.”

This is why Decker thinks it’s important for students, especially first-generation ones, to find a balance between work, school and a social life.

“If a student does find that it takes 40 hours a week to work to be financially secure, they should try to find the credit load that balances it out.”

According to Decker, finding this balance may be a trial-and-error process. After calculating the average time students spend sleeping, studying and doing other necessary tasks like eating, she found that there are 46 hours left over in the week for free time.

But this total doesn’t count work.

Work-life balance is about finding equilibrium between studying, working and relaxing. For some, that means studying more and watching Netflix less.

For others, like Smith, that might mean finding more time to have fun.

“I never have time to relax,” Smith said. “I am just constantly looking forward to when I can finally play video games again.”

Decker says that students need to schedule time to decompress. If it’s in the schedule, she said, it’s more likely to get done.

“Stress management, sleep, exercise and eating well strengthen our immune system, and help build resiliency to stress,” Decker said.

She adds that students don’t need to practice an hour of yoga every day to get the benefits of stress reduction. Instead, even five minutes to practice mindfulness is enough.

“Just sitting still in silence, not checking your phone and letting your thoughts come and go,” Decker said. “That has immediate physiological impacts, which can help students better focus in class.”

Smith understands the importance of decompressing, but still struggles to make it work.

“It’s hard when everyone’s telling you to work less, take a break,” Smith said. “But as a first-generation student paying for college and supporting myself with no help, it’s just not that easy.



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