Covert: How working off-campus can save us from ourselves

Alexander Covert, Contributing Writer

Working is one of the many activities students at Case Western Reserve University often overlook in favor of academic pursuits. When I say “working,” I don’t mean studying, research or internships. I mean old-fashioned, unskilled, low-wage work. While some would advise not working a job to create time for more prestigious professional opportunities, I believe having a job is essential. It provides a chance for college students to gain a healthy perspective on their educational opportunities. Additionally,working is a way to destress away from the academic environment.

There’s an intense pressure to succeed academically at CWRU, sometimes at the expense of mental or physical self-care. Students are often so overworked that they don’t have time for anything outside of school or “resume-builders”—activities to look good professionally, not for enjoyment. You often hear students complaining about the university’s negatives, including but not limited to dining hall food, course load, social life, mental health and the administration. This toxic attitude is unhealthy to perpetuate and be immersed in. However, students can easily avoid this mindset by finding a diversion outside of the CWRU environment.

My criteria for what constitutes a healthy diversion is two-fold: it should get you interacting with people outside of the university and it should have non-academic purposes. The former surrounds you with a community outside of the CWRU bubble—a community not made up of young adults with almost no knowledge of the real world. The latter point affirms that this activity is a genuine outlet that doesn’t require you to have your performance at CWRU in the back of your mind as you do it.

The opportunities for recreation is a reason why I chose CWRU—not just for its academic reputation. I (correctly) believed its location in Cleveland would help me find activities that would get me away from school if I needed it. This factor was important to me because of my experiences in high school. My school had a graduating class size of 70—too small and homogenous to find anyone I considered a trustworthy friend. As a result, I became very involved with my part-time job at a thrift store. Working there exposed me to people and situations I would never have seen had I stayed within my school activities. Each coworker was coming from and going to a different place in life, ranging from high school students like myself, to welders, ex-military and an accounting graduate studying for the Certified Public Accountant exam.

Being with them made me realize that college isn’t essential to living a meaningful life, and you don’t need to be a straight-A student involved in every extracurricular to be successful. As a result, I don’t feel the need to complain about not getting perfect grades all the time. I don’t feel the need to pressure myself into building my resume for the perfect internship or research position. That environment helped me realize that my identity isn’t dependent on my studies and career. However, many of my coworkers and customers didn’t have the educational background to make college a possibility, which made me recognize that going to CWRU is a special opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. It’s an opportunity to learn about the world, explore different careers and develop skills that can land me a stable job.

However, my high school position itself was also fulfilling. My job consisted of moving donations around within the store, driving to houses to transport larger pieces back to the store and delivering excess donations to the town scrapyard or dump. I loved it because it was physical and non-academic, allowing me to shut my brain off and not care about homework, social drama or grades for four to eight hours a day. In short, my job allowed me to destress from my academic life.

Working in an environment outside of my high school community changed my perspective on a college education and made school less stressful overall. On some level, I knew I wanted this same grounding perspective while in college. After spending a copious amount of time looking for internships and research positions I wasn’t interested in, I decided to look for a non-academic job to find the same satisfaction I had in my high school job. After 90 minutes of job searching, a restaurant in Little Italy hired me as a busser. Is it fun? Yes. Can I juggle it with academics? For now. Is it worth 15 hours a week? Definitely.

Obviously, not everyone wants to be a busser or thrift store worker, but any activity that you enjoy doing and gets you talking with people outside of CWRU will have the same effect. Our urban location makes getting off-campus surprisingly easy, with plenty of local businesses hiring college students as employees or volunteers. Regardless of your interests or lifestyle, it’s extremely easy to find an outlet that works for you.

Despite the ease of access, some would argue that non-prestigious work isn’t worth your time because they don’t directly contribute to your career progression. I’ve noticed that CWRU culture can sometimes look down on activities that aren’t professionally prestigious. A staff member at the career center recommended removing my high school job from my resume since it was “not relevant” to getting an internship. However, I’d argue any work experience still contributes to your professional development. My job may not have been a “resume-builder,” but I learned how to work hard, be adaptable and communicate effectively—all without the stress of an academic setting.

Most importantly, my job exposed me to the world outside of academic institutions. It helped me view my schoolwork in a healthy context and understand that the huge stressors of college aren’t that huge when you allow yourself a bit of perspective. Maybe, just maybe, if everyone takes a step back from CWRU to work outside of it, we’ll be able to save ourselves from the very issues we always seem to be complaining about.