Students balance school with necessity for full-time work


Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Senior computer engineering major Alec Cantor works 40 hours a week for his co-op with Mine Safety Applications for the second semester in a row.

By Sid Lingala, Staff Writer

Ask Alec Cantor what it’s like to work standard full-time hours while being a full-time student, and he’ll tell you that while it’s still work, he appreciates having a break from classes.

“It’s a little easier to manage than school because there’s no homework and my weekends are completely free,” Cantor said. “There’s deadlines at work, but at school, it’s like, ‘this big project is due, you have this amount of time, you are not allowed to do this and it has to be done the way we learned in class.’”

Cantor, a senior computer engineering major, started interning 40 hours a week at Mine Safety Applications — a company specializing in workplace safety products — during the 2018 spring semester. He said he joined the company because of his interest in its software development aspect — and he began his second rotation this semester.

“Right now, I’m helping work on a device that we are trying to roll out in the next couple of years for firefighters,” he said. “It’s going to be a device that helps them navigate buildings better.”

Cantor also has to deal with his roles as both a student and a full-time employee.

“I do feel like I’m a full-time employee. I wake up at 7:45 every morning. I get into my car and there’s traffic,” Cantor said. “But then I feel like a student because at work, I’m not asked to plan an entire project. It will be like, ‘work on this small project and if you have any questions, let me know.’”

Despite these obstacles, Cantor thinks this experience will be valuable to his goal of becoming a software developer.

“I’m hoping that once I graduate, they end up hiring me on to the team, because the team I’m on right now is very short-staffed,” Cantor said. “But even if that doesn’t happen, it’s an incredible resumé item. I would have literally done software development at a professional level for three semesters.”

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer
Junior mechanical engineering major Rebecca Weaver worked 40 hours a week for her co-op with Schroeder Industries during the spring 2017, fall 2017 and spring 2018 semesters.

Rebecca Weaver, a junior mechanical engineering student, also values the experience she gets from her full-time internship — it’s taught her how to approach professionals in a way she never learned in class.

“I had no idea how all the different people email, how you have to learn to communicate differently with different people,” Weaver said. “I didn’t realize how much small talk came into play. My final rotation, someone came in to advertise all the different nozzles their company sells and half of it was talking about motorcycles and baseball.”

Weaver completed her third and final rotation last spring at Schroeder Industries, a company that specializes in products dealing with hydraulic fluid filtration. She took particular interest in the company because of the hands-on shop and vast amount of lab experience it offered.

“Sometimes I would get random high-importance, one-day assignments that took all day to finish, like reverse engineering a competitor’s product or finding a vendor for a particular manufacturing machine,” Weaver said.

During her first rotation, Weaver had a tough time dealing with her busy schedule. She taught high school band on weeknights and rehearsed at a performing arts ensemble in Akron, Ohio, on weekends. It became easier with each rotation.

Despite her positive experience where she learned how to communicate with other professionals and prioritize her projects, Weaver still felt her co-op was harder than taking classes.

“With classes, you get to shape your own schedule, work when you want to. But with co-op, everyone is there Monday through Friday until 5 p.m., and you need to work with all those people. If you’re not available during those times, you’re kind of screwed,” Weaver said.

While Weaver kept her co-ops and classes separate — like Cantor does now — Etta Popek often finds her full-time job as a waitress conflictual with her regular classwork. Popek, a communication major graduating this December, works 30 to 35 hours a week at Local Brewhouse waiting tables. She manages her school and work responsibilities by doing her homework during slow days in the restaurant or on the bus to and from work.

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer
Senior communication major Etta Popek works more than 30 hours a week as a waitress to finance her education and living expenses.

“I know I’m going to work, I know the amount of time I need to set aside for transportation. If I have schoolwork, I can either bring that or I can do it on the bus with me, or the time that I have between school and work,” Popek said. “College has definitely prepared me for, like, taking responsibility of my own time and also like respecting other people’s time.”

Working at the restaurant since January, Popek has an extensive occupational history that she attributes to her love for being busy.

“I’ve always worked since I was like 16. I’ve always had at least one job,” Popek said. “This past summer, I did two serving jobs and then a research position that Pitt was running, so that was kind of a crazy summer. But that was fun. So I’ve always been working, I can’t sit still.”

Popek, like many students, also has financial woes that motivate her through her hectic schedule. She’s financially independent from her parents and therefore needs a job to pay her living expenses.

“Being self-sufficient is, I think, one of the most important things to do while you’re in college. You don’t have to be fully self-sufficient, but this is like the next stepping stone in your life before you’re expected to really do everything on your own,” Popek said. “This is like a trial and error before you’re on your own doing whatever job that you choose to do.”

Regardless of the hardships that come with having a full-time job during college, all three students agreed with the personal development that college students can gain from a co-op or job experience.

“I can’t imagine trying to become a professional out of college without this experience,” Cantor said.