Patty flippers. Unpaid interns. Sandwich deliverers. Tour guides.
For all but a lucky few, income as a college student means low-paying grunt work at the bottom of the food chain. Like so many others, I spend my days tossing dough and politely up-selling at another generic pizza restaurant. There, the peak of excitement is usually a furious customer demanding a refund. They phone in to complain about an unforgivably misplaced mushroom or an “inedible” crust bubble. Sometimes, the most interesting part of my day is practicing trick shots with wads of plastic wrap.
Over time, the days begin to melt together. Nothing really changes. The employees wear heavy polyester uniforms (several sizes too large) and plastic crime scene gloves. We disguise ourselves as low-level professionals in sensible shoes. We plaster on fake smiles as customers struggle to understand why extra toppings cost more. And we do it all again tomorrow.
The reason we students are so comfortable filling our summers with minimum-wage work is that we are confident it is temporary. I don’t mind the apron because I know at the end of the summer, I can go back to pursuing my degree and that degree will (hopefully) take me somewhere better. Why else would we continue tossing money into our education, unless we truly believed it was our ticket out?
For now, I am faced every day with the alternative. It could be a pimply-faced assistant manager breathing down my neck or a delivery route or a lawn mower. While there is no shame in honest work, honest work with no chance for advancement or excitement is the trap I can feel closing around me.
It turns out even part-time shift work is enough to remind me why I decided to risk university in the first place.
As the fall semester grows closer, I gripe with everyone else. Secretly, I am relieved. Every class, in theory, is a step away from wiping counter tops for the rest of my life and toward a meaningful career.
So many are denied access to the privilege of higher education, and we have the audacity to whine about it. In reality, we should be grateful to get stuck as a barista or server for a few months, if only to provide some perspective.
Collegian Senior Reporter Rachel Musselmann can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @rmusselmann.