Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Real World: My Pre-Academic Jobs

There is a persistent image that many undergraduates (or, more accurately, the public at large) have about professors, that we, locked away in our ivory tower, have no idea what it is like in the "real world" where people really work (as opposed, I guess, to pretending to work?).

There has also been quite a lot of talk recently about the value of internships, especially the kind where students have to pay to participate and don't see any money in return. And, as college admissions seasons have came and went, there has been a deluge of hang wringing about how high school students can no longer afford to work, lest their college application not reflect the right kind of values and experiences.

I have been working since I was 10 years old (crap, here she goes). I started with a paper route (mind you, it was only for our weekly local paper, but still) that I inherited from a friend. I moved on to babysitting, found through hand-made fliers that my mom graciously copied at work (I colored them afterwards, too). These jobs didn't pay much, but they were enough to keep a 10-13 year old in Tiger Beat magazines and cassettes. 

I also did some unpaid work at that time, via a quasi-internship program run by the city, Leaders in Training/Leaders of Tomorrow. I wanted to be a lifeguard, and this was how the city (who ran the pools) helped prepare us for our eventual job as lifeguards (or park attendants). Basically, we got to do all the nasty jobs (like clean out the gutters) that the lifeguards didn't want to do. It was sort-of terrible, but that was outweighed by the fact that it meant you got to hang out in the office with the lifeguards who were all older and impossibly cool. That was worth a lot of dead bugs.

Now, a few words on lifeguarding, my first real job. To all those college admissions people who think that lifeguarding equals lazy, I'm here to tell you, you're dead wrong. At least where we grew up, lifeguarding meant not only sitting on a chair in the sun, it also meant that you had to coach a water sport (diving, swimming, synchro, or water polo), teach swimming lessons, organize the competitions for the sport you coached, and organize community events to be held at the pool. Sometimes, we also had to do fund-raisers. At the age of 16. No one working at the pools were usually older than 21 or 22, and they were manager. These were not insignificant jobs with no responsibilities. And, trust me, when the patrons weren't happy with the job you were doing, they let my bosses at City Hall know (being how my salary was paid by their taxes and all that).

But even if lifeguarding only consists of sitting up on that chair, know that that job is one that is a matter of life and death. If someone is drowning, has a stroke, a heart attack, has a severe allergic reaction, etc, it is our responsibility to save them. We're trained to do that. It's one of those jobs where it doesn't look like you're doing much until you are called upon to act. And then, you'd best act. I've had to clear the pool for one spinal (which is stressful because one wrong move and the person could be paralyzed), and it was frightening. We might not always have to put our knowledge into practice, but if something were to go wrong, lifeguards (at least the ones I grew up with) are professional, capable, and still in their teens.

Kids, you can quote me on that one, too.

I learned some valuable lessons. I had to show up for work, on time, or suffer the consequences. I was once suspended for a week because I missed staff training (this precious little snowflake simply forgot). And so, I didn't work for a week, lost the wages, and had to deal with the ire of my staff-mates who had to make up my shifts. I learned how to deal with the public, think on my feet, and get my head out of my own ass. I remembered how much I looked up to the lifeguards who coached me, so I knew the responsibility I had to my swimmers. I'm not saying I didn't do stupid things, but I owned up to them, took my licks, and moved on. I also learned that it is really, really hard to work with friends, especially when they are your boss.

When I went to university, I chose my program, in part, because built into the program were paid internships. Our tuition money paid for an entire department devoted to finding related and relevant jobs and job experience. They had to be directly related to our major (professional writing) and they had to pay. We did pay a nominal amount of tuition during our work terms, but it was nowhere near full tuition and was easily covered by the salaries we were earning. I had applied and been accepted into a much more prestigious journalism program in large part because I wasn't about to work at unpaid internships.

When I was 14, my parents divorced. I still swam competitively, and much of the costs became my responsibility. I loved lifeguarding, but I needed to work in order to pay for swimming and any other activity I wanted to do. University was no different; I was paying my own way, and I couldn't afford to take summers or semesters off to get coffee and not make any money. While I understood that an unpaid internship was a "foot in the door," if there was an option on the table where I would get paid, well, there really wasn't a choice.

And this is where the discussion about voluntourism, unpaid internships, and the college admissions game gets me really, really rilled up. While I am fortunate that I never had to work retail or in fast food, I nonetheless had to earn my keep. I had to work (although I would have anyway, probably). I think, as valuable as unpaid internships may be, they are exploitative and unfair because they favor those students who can afford to not make any money. Summers in the developing world building houses is great, but that wasn't going to pay for school.

I think that the people who are disconnected from the "real world" aren't academics, but the people who think that unpaid work and luxury volunteer opportunities are what build character. I think the same people who think lifeguards are lazy are the same people who think academics are lazy. My real world is a lot more real than you think.


  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing. I like that you talk about life guarding. Funny enough, the pool in my city is no longer run by the city council, but as an independent non-profit organisation. So if you want to get involved, even if you are 'just' a life guard, you could earn some money plus get insights into local non-profit management. It may not sound as cool as a 'development' experience, but you can actually learn something plus even meet 'poor children', as the fee is cheap and the less well-off part of town is close ;)!

  2. Real world:
    McDonald's, yes, fries with that. Bookstore. (I am a biblioholic after all.) Waitressing, at which I was a failure, especially compared to my Olympic Medal winner-equivalent mother. Teaching elementary school. Teaching middle school. Teaching high school. Secretary--in a foreign country in a second foreign language. Legal research (not a paid job, but good experience). Writer; yes, I've been paid to write.

  3. Yes, I couldn't agree more! I realize I come from privilege, as my parents were wonderful enough to pay for college, but since I was fourteen, I always had a job, and I was always expected to because my parents believed it taught us the value of money and work ethic, and I believe it was a way to showcase my high standard of personal integrity.

    My senior year of college I had three part time jobs: working in the honors college office and editing their newsletter, giving campus tours, and being a TA for an online course. As a masters student, I worked as a personal assistant to a couple (married) of writers and worked in the writing center 20 hours a week. In some ways, though, I see the 7 years I spent teaching horseback riding and working at the barn's riding camp as some of the most valuable work experience I had. It was there that I learned I love teaching and seeing students learn and grow. I was responsible for up to 15 kids at a time, on horses... hello, danger!... and on the ground (maybe not much better). I learned to negotiate with different learning styles, talk to parents, deal with less than pleasant bosses, and encourage a sense of community and self-esteem amongst my students.

    In college, I did eventually turn to an unpaid internship, but only because it was on campus (academic advisement intern), and I was still able to work my other part time job.

    I definitely think these unpaid internships it does a disservice to students whose parents don't think school is a students only job, who are impoverished, who have children, etc. It's really just digging that divide between the classes a bit deeper. It's clearly just another ploy for corporations to get cheap labor.

    Great post! As always.

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