In an age when many college students work because they cannot afford the soaring cost of education, Gail Ideno is working because she wants to.
"My parents can afford to send me," said the 21-year-old senior at Claremont McKenna College, a private liberal arts school where tuition and room and board are about $20,000 a year. "But they're not rich," she adds. "They've made a lot of sacrifices to send me to school."
Most educators agree that holding a part-time job is a good idea for a student, helping to teach them how to set priorities and better manage their time. "Working outside the classroom can enhance a young person's educational experience," said Torrey Sun, dean of students at Claremont. But, he quickly adds, "The first priority should be to learn and to get a degree--that's why they are here."
Indeed, experts warn that too much time on the job can detract from the experience of being a student, affecting grades, social life and participation in extracurricular activities. The key, they say, is striking the proper balance--much like Ideno seems to have done.
By limiting the time she spends on the job to between five and 10 hours a week, Ideno has managed to maintain a high grade-point average and participate in athletics and school plays. As a rule, advises Leland C. Gassert, director of the Career Center at Cal State Northridge, students should not work more than 20 hours a week.
Ideno also works right on campus, as the coordinator of a student assistance program. Eric Dey, associate director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, says studies show that students who work at school fair better than those who have jobs off campus. "Students tend to be more involved in campus life and that's always a good thing," he explains.
Ideno also has worked each summer at jobs relevant to advertising, her prospective career. "Working prepares the student for the real world," says Ludi Villegas, an academic counselor at Los Angeles City College, a two-year inner-city school where most students have no choice but to work. "The experiences students acquire in the workplace simply cannot be learned in a classroom."
Still, there are risks for the working student. "Things like student government or athletics are usually the first to go when a student works too much," cautions Northridge's Gassert. "I call it the hidden curriculum. Students all too often get focused on academics and work and they don't do the other things that help them to develop their personalities.
"Many students work too many hours," he adds. "Sometimes they need to and sometimes it's greed. Students get caught up, as much as society does, in working more hours to make more money than they really have to."
Some educators bemoan the passing of an era when being just a student was considered another stage in life, part of the natural passage from adolescence to adulthood.
"We could devote ourselves to the exploration of our minds and to the theories and facts of human knowledge," William R. Whipple, director of the scholars program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, wrote in a 1988 Change magazine article about his own educational experience, sans work.
"The economic support was rarely sufficient for elegant living," he noted, "but we generated a culture with its own notions of elegance: a shambling, termite-ridden apartment and three pairs of blue jeans were, by and large, our notions of glory."
But times have changed. The romanticized state of "studenthood" seems lost forever. And although there are no national statistics about the number of students who work, it is an increasing trend, says Lou Albert, vice president of the Washington-based American Assn. for Higher Education.
"I think we are at a stage in our society where students ought to engage in out-of-class activity, either for enrichment or income," Albert says. "Even if students have the luxury of parents who can afford to send them to school, they still should choose to do more than just be a scholar."
Albert's own son will be a freshman this fall at Brown University, an Ivy League school in Providence, R.I. "It wouldn't be necessary for him to work, but I am going to encourage him to," Albert says. "A kid gets to be 18 years old and begins to feel a little bit more independent and wants to be able to contribute. It gives them a sense of ownership and participation in their own education and that builds character."
Helen Ideno agrees. "I always felt studies came first," she says about her daughter, Gail, who will graduate from Claremont this year and begin work at the San Francisco advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding, where she was an intern last summer.
"When a person works while getting an education, the education means more. A little work is good for them."