By Aaron LaRoy
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday and Courtney Carlson’s brain begins formulating and scheduling her tasks for the day. Her brain will then constantly reiterate her to-do list until sleep overtakes her sometime after midnight.
Carlson, 23, is a full-time student at Western Michigan University, a marketing intern at the Entertainment District in downtown Kalamazoo, a waitress at the Entertainment District and at Chili’s, and vice-president of the WMU chapter of the American Marketing Association.
She spends each day dealing with a lot of stress because of all these tasks. She is always thinking about what she needs to get done or where she needs to be.
“I don’t know what I would do without my planner,” Carlson said. “I have to have my planner around. If I lost it, I would have no clue what to do.”
While Carlson does hope and expect her lack of free time to make her stand out above other job applicants after she graduates in April, that’s not the sole reason why she works while enrolled full-time in college. Like many other students, she feels compelled to work now so that, in the future, she can avoid being burdened with debt. She owes more than $30,000 in loans, plus she has to pay $300 for rent every month. Her work helps her stay on top of her financial obligations.
Carlson’s college life has been spent on the job and in the classroom. It hasn’t been glamorous. However, a little stress and sweat now is helping her prepare for the long run.
“I’m going to be happy that I did all this and I was able to do it and I think it will help me out in the future,” Carlson said.
Every line in her planner is filled with her neat printing. Work, school and fun activities are highlighted in blue, yellow and pink, respectively, so that her eyes are immediately drawn to them. Tasks that have been accomplished are crossed out in the planner and also removed from the list in her mind.
Carlson has three classes in immediate succession beginning at 9:30 a.m on Thursdays. She stuffs some snacks into her already full backpack before she makes her way to the bus stop outside her home.
In between classes, Carlson checks her phone for text messages or e-mails from friends, family or co-workers. Those messages may contain something else to add to the rundown of tasks in her head or to the color-coded pages in her planner.
When her last class is over, she hops on the bus back home. She has about three hours before she has to go to work. The time isn’t spent relaxing, though. She stays busy cleaning the house or studying.
Schoolwork and housework conclude when the time comes for Carlson to begin waitressing. She dons her uniform and drives her gray Ford Focus hatchback about five miles to Chili’s on Westnedge Avenue.
Carlson hustles between the dining room and the kitchen for the next several hours, fulfilling food orders and clearing tables.
She makes the return trip home after the restaurant has has been closed and cleaned.
Her paid work may be over, but assignments remain. She continues to study past midnight.
Carlson’s boyfriend usually works until midnight. She greets him when he returns home from his shift.
She typically goes to bed at about 12:30 or 1 a.m. The constant to-do list in her head is silenced by sleep shortly thereafter.
Her brain starts up again in the morning. Her schedule is different, but is just as busy.
The busy days turn into weeks and months. The stress is constant. Carlson hopes that the hard work now will cause her to stand out to employers after she graduates at the end of April.
“[Working while in college] shows motivation that you aren’t just going to school; you have jobs, experience, and extracurricular activities,” Carlson said. “I think it shows that you’re motivated and ready to take on larger tasks.”
Carlson will be graduating from WMU with a double major in marketing and environmental studies. She hopes to get a job in the marketing field after graduation.
Her work as a server hasn’t specifically helped her gain experience in marketing, but Kathy Olsen, the marketing and community information coordinator at Michigan Works!, said that every job helps an employee learn some “transferable skills.” Those skills, customer service and teamwork for example, are applicable to almost any job.
“I can think of a couple of instances where youth I know did lawn care for family and neighbors, or they worked on a family farm, but were still able to get a job because, in both instances, they were able to demonstrate that they were hard workers and paid attention to detail,” Olsen said.
“What an employer likes to see is that you didn’t just sit around in your spare time,” Olsen said.
Carlson has not spent her time in college sitting around. She has consistently had at least one job during the five years that she has attended WMU. Those jobs, coupled with her studies, keep her constantly working at something.
Because so much of her time is spent in the classroom and at her job learning skills that will transfer to her career, Carlson often misses out on other activities.
“I have a lot of friends who aren’t going to school, so they’re constantly ‘Hey, come out and do this!’ and ‘We’re all doing this!’ and you’re sitting there with a paper to write, and it’s frustrating,” Carlson said. “Sometimes I just want a break. I don’t want to go to work or school or worry about an internship; I just want to lay around and do nothing or go out with all my friends who don’t have homework all the time.”
She tries to devote her weekdays to classes and homework. Her weekends and most evenings are usually spent waitressing.
“When I do get days where I don’t have anything to do, it’s weird,” Carlson said. “I feel really awkward, like I’m missing something.”