OPINION: The struggle of paying to work

Photo by Augustine Ng.

The conversation often starts with a friend asking me why I work so much. They’re asking simply because they care about me and can’t stand to see me work seven days a week, running on five hours of sleep. I remind myself that this is just temporary, only a few months to go. I double up on my under-eye concealer and hop on the 6:57 morning train. It feels robotic, but I think I’m trying to convince myself that I enjoy it.

Currently, I’m three months away from completing my undergraduate degree at Ryerson. I’m at the Ryersonian five days a week; getting here as early as 8:30 and not getting home until around 8 p.m. Throughout the week, I run social media for a startup and on the weekends, I work at a draining retail job. Nothing about my life feels glamourous, but it’s necessary. Coming from a family of recent immigrants, I’m simply unable to add the burden of tuition to my parents’ already long list of payments. I’m so grateful that I have the opportunity to take a government loan to assist with my tuition, but I can’t count on OSAP to cover my tuition every semester. The thought of having to pay back the five-figure total makes my stomach turn.

Seeing family and friends has become a rare occasion. When I do get the odd chance to see them, it’s often when I’m rushing out the house in the morning or when I get home after a day that seems never-ending. I lose track of weekdays, and weekends have quickly turned into two days of listening to angry customers.

In a few weeks, I’ll be starting a full-time unpaid internship, counting for school credit. Disclaimer: students who choose this route pay Ryerson tuition while doing their unpaid internship. Simply put, we’re paying to be unpaid.

Mind you, I’m aware that the experience I will get at that internship will be unreal. But why do I have to pay Ryerson for it when I landed the internship myself?  What makes me even angrier, is that I’m not a one-off situation. Many students have to go through the same thing in order to get an education.

Social work student Kailey Thurgood has to complete two unpaid internships as a requirement of her program. “This year, my fourth year, I am required to complete 504 hours of unpaid work. I also have to pay to work for free,” she says. “Ryerson counts placement as a course so my tuition is increased and my internship counts as a class… I love the experience I am getting at my internship but I wish that I did not have to pay for it as if it were a university course.”

On top of her internships, Thurgood has two jobs on the side, one at a local nightclub and another at the Toronto Eaton Centre. She says she struggles to find the time and balance to still enjoy somewhat of a social life.

“The literature in mental health and health in general is really clear, when you have a lot of responsibilities and very little control, your health is worse,” says Corinne Hart, associate professor at Ryerson and expert in student mental health.

I’m not going to lie, working multiple jobs and taking on internships has its fair share of pros. I have met some wonderful people, made great connections and learned lots about different aspects of my field. Working random retail jobs has improved my communication skills and taught me the skill of time management. It’s not easy, but it’s a reality many students face. But the bottom line is unpaid internships shouldn’t be a thing, even if they are required for school credit.

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