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Seven Lessons From Seven College Jobs

Not working wasn't an option for me in college. Financial aid covered tuition, my meal plan, and room and board, but if I wanted textbooks, gas for my ancient Hyundai, or java for late-night study sessions, I had to find work. I was only in it for the extra cash, so getting more out of a college job than a minimum-wage paycheck surprised me.

Suzanne Flores, a student at Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR), feels the same way. She says that adding work experience to her degree has given her an edge over other students. "I will already know things they still have to learn about interpersonal communication skills and group dynamics," she says.

Understanding working relationships is only one of the many benefits I gained, as Suzanne did, by working my way through college. I learned a specific, important lesson from every position I held, no matter how insignificant the job seemed in terms of my Spanish major.

1. Roll With the Punches
When I signed on as Spanish production manager for a small, internationally published magazine, I was thrilled. After a few weeks, however, my supervisor decided to make me the circulation manager and give my job to a translator who had grown up in Central America. I pointed out that I spoke better Spanish and had even corrected mistakes in that translator's work, but my supervisor, who did not know the language, insisted that my replacement would be an improvement.

Accepting the change and eventually learning to enjoy the new work taught me my first lesson: Sometimes it pays to roll with the punches. The position ended up being a lot of fun, gave me valuable experience in the workings of magazine publication, and even fit better with my school schedule. I was glad I decided to stick with it.

2. Work Hard No Matter What
I soon took a second college job in the Student Center, alternating between the deli, a fast food outlet, and a pizza stand. It required a lot less thought than checking for translation errors. Applying myself in spite of the simplistic nature of the work became, in the end, the biggest challenge of all. How much effort should I give to getting the mustard and ketchup swirled in just the right pattern?

I learned that paying attention to details and working hard, even when I felt less than enthusiastic about flipping burgers, is vital. Applying that lesson in other jobs has helped me land management positions and simply stay on my boss' good side so that I get better treatment when it comes time for vacation scheduling or merit pay raises.

3. Set Limits
When I started my own typing service, I hoped it would allow me to quit returning to my dorm smelling like fries every night. Instead, I found myself facing a new lesson: how to set limits. Not only could my most regular customer -- a business major -- not type, but he couldn't write. I continually had to decide if he really meant to add a comma or spell gene with one "e." Besides having to define the line between editing and cheating, I spent too much time rushing to meet other people's deadlines.

Alesia Papastavros, an office assistant in the student employment office at the University of Connecticut (Storrs-Mansfield, CT), has faced similar challenges while juggling work and full-time study. The upside? It will give her an advantage when she graduates, she says. "I'll balance work and family in the same way."

4. Know When to Quit
At my next college job as a bank teller, the last hour of my weekday shifts involved working the drive-through window with a female co-worker after the other employees went home. In the fall, when sunset came earlier, we began to feel nervous about closing the bank on a quiet street after dark by ourselves. When we discovered that the police officers in our town waited in the parking lots of other banks at closing so the tellers could reach their cars in safety, we called to request the same protection. Our manager, however, asked that the officers no longer come by because it was "too much trouble." I decided I wasn't willing to work for a business that didn't protect its employees, and gave my two-weeks notice the next day. This college job taught me that sometimes I have to draw the line on what I'm willing to accept.

5. Use Downtime Wisely
I soon found a position answering the phone for one of the campus dormitories, but it rang only five to 10 times during a five-hour shift. I was bored, but I utilized my time cleaning the room and organizing the desk instead of doing my nails or flipping through a magazine. Later, when budget problems forced my supervisor to cut her staff, I kept my job because those small actions had made me a more valuable employee. I learned that making work a high priority could pay off.

Jennifer Rocheleau, career services liaison and recent graduate of Oklahoma Christian University (Oklahoma City, OK), says that learning to set priorities gives graduates a definite advantage. "Students who have everything handed to them by others don't learn to balance priorities in the workplace the way I've done," she says.

6. Learn to See the Actual Value of a Job
My next college job, as a tutor, looked like it would be the most profitable yet, but I soon found out I was expected to spend 20 hours a week in the office while only being paid for the hours a student requested help. After two months, I decided my actual paycheck wasn't worth the time I spent doing nothing. This lesson was invaluable to me because it taught me to consider a prospective employer's terms more carefully before accepting a position.

7. Motivate Others Around You
When promoted from sales associate at my next job in a video-music-bookstore to the video department manager, I was delighted and wanted to excel. It wasn't long before I found out that convincing others to do their jobs without begging, bribing, or beating was a tremendous task. Luckily, it was also a tremendous lesson. I learned the delicate balance between kindness and leniency versus high expectations and harshness.

While I never expected to learn anything from the college jobs I took to pay the bills, I now realize those lessons paid off in more ways than I could have hoped. I'm glad to have worked in every one of them.