College and Student Debt: Part Three: Work Experience

by Nathan on December 17, 2011

This is the third and final installment on what you can do as a college student to best prepare yourself to pay back your student debt when you graduate college. Parts one and two can be found here and here respectively.

Before I delve into the final piece in this series, I wanted to reiterate that this series began as a reaction to one of the biggest complaints made by the Occupy Wall Street movement: student loan debt.

Large student loan debt is a reality that won’t be going away any time soon. If you’re anything like this author, you have had to pay for most, if not all, of your education yourself. Unless you have a trust fund of some sort, you have to take out student loans, which can amount to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. These essays are focused on helping those college students who are aware of their looming debt and want to be in as good of a position as possible to pay it back when they graduate.


Along with what you decide to major in and what you choose to spend your free, or extra-curricular, time on, the quality and quantity of your work experience will be a big determining factor in paying back your debt. It seems obvious, but work experience means having a job that pays you money. Granted, you can acquire great work experience by having unpaid jobs, such as at a non-profit or on the staff of some politician. But the best work experience – in light of the student debt problem – is that which pays you money for your time and service.

There are several ways to acquire work experience, each with different goals, type of work performed, and salary.

Part-time job

A part-time job while you’re on campus is the most immediate way for you to earn cash. Whether you’re a waitress or waiter at a restaurant, a bartender or bouncer at a bar, a sales clerk at a bookstore, or a barista at a coffeehouse, these are all jobs that put cash right into your pocket. While I was in college, I worked at Dairy Queen, sold steak knives, worked in roofing and other general contracting, and mowed my church’s (among others’) lawn.

These part-time jobs aren’t going to make a very big dent out of, let’s say, $200,000 of loans. I knew that my $5.25 an hour at Dairy Queen wasn’t going to make me rich. But having a part-time job will provide you with some cash during school so you can pay for food or your nightlife or any of those expenses that you never think about but always seem to creep up (dues for a club, for instance).

You can also build skills and demonstrate to future employers your character and work ethic. When I was working at Dairy Queen, I learned how to deal with customers, mitigate disputes between my fellow employees, and please a boss, which is a lesson in diplomacy if there ever was one. Selling steak knives taught me the nuts and bolts of salesmanship and how to make a cold call, which can be really embarrassing at first. When you have a small part-time job, it signals to a future employer that you’re reliable, trustworthy, and punctual. And I personally believe that having a job at someplace like McDonalds or a gas station shows that you’re not above humbling work. I know that I personally have respect for people who worked whatever job they could get, even if it meant minimum wage.

On-campus full-tuition jobs

There are usually several ways while on-campus to get your entire tuition and room-and-board paid for. Two most notable ways in my mind are through participating in the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and dormitory system resident assistant (RA) program. It must be plainly noted, however, that both of these programs demand considerable commitments. ROTC usually requires attending drill and physical training a few days a week and several weekends a semester and, of course, a four or five year commitment to serve in the reserves or on active duty in whatever branch of the military. And as an RA, you are required to live in the dormitories and dedicate many nights to monitoring the halls and performing many uncomfortable disciplinary actions. But the rewards for both of these programs are great, as they usually pay for full-tuition and room-and-board.

Being an ROTC cadet or an RA are also great ways to prepare for life after college. You learn leadership skills and discipline; you demonstrate that you can handle pressure and crises. A friend of mine, who was an RA, once had to deal with a kid that had alcohol poisoning. He detected all the signs of alcohol poisoning and immediately took action to possibly save this kid’s life. Life experiences like these are what really test your moxie. And when employers are interviewing you, they will ask questions like: Tell me a time when you had to work under pressure. This situation provides a perfect response because you analyzed a situation, made a judgment call, and acted quickly when the stakes were high.

Teaching assistant

When you’re a senior or possibly even a junior, and have pretty decent grades in your major, you can oftentimes work as teaching assistant (TA). Being a teaching assistant is great because you get to make some cash while also working closely with a professor and learning the nuts and bolts of teaching.

I was a teaching assistant for an introductory industrial engineering course my senior year. I worked only about three to four hours a week – like I said, it was introductory – at $10 an hour. Some of my fellow TAs worked 10 to 20 hours a week, depending on the class. While my $30 to $40 a week paid for food or going out, my colleagues who pulled in $200 a week were making some pretty serious cash for a college student.

Not only that, when you’re a TA you get work closely with a professor. By spending a lot of time with the professor, you should eventually build a good relationship with him or her. I know I greatly cherish the relationship I built over the years with the professor I was a TA for. I got to know him on a personal level and about his life story. He told me about the shenanigans he and his buddies got into during the Korean War and how he still held a grudge against Harry Truman for drafting him. I also received a great deal of advice on human nature and office politics, academia being an oftentimes ruthless political environment.

Lastly, if you decide to go to grad school, this professor can be a great person to ask for a letter of recommendation. Many professors usually know other professors and administrators from other schools, or at least recognize their work, and can serve as great introductions.


Internships are, in my opinion, the best way to get solid work experience that will prepare you for a career after college. (My alma mater had a co-op program, which some other schools have as well, that is probably the single best way to get relevant work experience).

Almost every company or firm I can think of has an internship program of some sort. The most straightforward way you can get one is by going to their website and applying online. However, while straightforward, its not the necessarily going to promise a job. That is why most colleges have career centers that can help you connect with an actual human resources representative or a hiring manager. My alma mater, for instance, has a website that lists which companies will be on-campus on a certain date and lets you send your resume directly to the representatives who will be interviewing candidates. It’s very personal and easy to use.

Throughout college I had three internships: one as a manufacturing engineer, one as design engineer, and one as quality / lean six sigma engineer. My experiences as an intern were tremendous and directly led to my full-time employment after school.

As an intern, you’re not going to be saving the company or revolutionizing the way they do business. What you’re doing is learning how to work in a professional setting. You learn how businesses do things and get stuff done. For instance, when I was in college I had some project team meetings and extra-curricular meetings. Those were fine and dandy, but in the workplace people’s time is valuable and meetings are (or at least should be) more efficient. You send all meeting materials beforehand so attendees are already informed of what is going on and you come prepared with a meeting objective and agenda. You also learn how to deal with people who are much older than you and that have different interests. During my first internship, I had to perform a work-time study on a shop floor with union workers. At the time I really didn’t realize the sensitive nature of the job and couldn’t understand why people weren’t exactly the friendliest toward me. But I eventually made friends with all of the guys and got my work done. (Whether it was because of my charm or my naiveté I’ll never know).

My first internship led to my second one, which led to my third one, which led to my full-time job after college. The value of an internship is that first and foremost, you’re making cash during the summer. My first internship salary was about $19 an hour, which I thought was amazing at the time. Second, you garner invaluable experience working in a professional setting, which you can bring to a full-time job. Lastly, employers are much more likely to give a full-time offer to someone who has demonstrated that he or she can be successful in a given work environment.


These three essays hopefully will give you – the college student or prospective college student – an idea of how you can prepare yourself to pay back your student loans. I understand there are many other ways – particularly scholarships – to pay back your debt. But this series assumes that you’ll have a lot of debt, of which the scholarships would have alleviated the necessity for.

These essays are based upon my own experience or what has worked and what hasn’t. I hope that those people who have had different experiences than I will share those with us in the comments section. And I am more than happy to open up a dialogue on this topic there as well.

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