Part 2: Work as a Student

Back in 2015, when I decided to pursue my master’s degree, there were quite a few factors that I had to consider to shortlist universities. Some of them were US college rankings, location, weather, course structure, and jobs. But to begin with, as an international student when I landed at Ames, the first thing I did was look for an on-campus job.

So what is an on-campus job?

It is a job that you are allowed to do as a student studying at the university. In the USA, a typical workweek lasts 40 hours, that is 8 hours of work every day of the week. But for an on-campus job you are allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours a week. This could be a few hours before or after classes.

The F-1 student visa restricts internationals from having a full-time job or an internship for the first 9-months of their course start date. The reason is that this visa is granted for educational purposes and not for work purposes.

What types of on-campus jobs are there?

You look at bigger cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, or Dallas. These cities house university campuses like UIC, Northeastern, NYU, and UTD. Because of the large number of enrolled students, the ratio of on-campus jobs to students is low. Luckily for us at Iowa State University, we didn’t have that struggle. We had a lot of on-campus jobs.

As a student, you could work in the library, gyms, labs, or dining halls. However, the majority of the on-campus jobs are focused in the dining halls. These jobs included chopping veggies, manning the registers, and even doing the dishes. These were ‘easy’ jobs as they were available in plenty and everyone could get one. Most of my fellow international students had grabbed dining jobs at various dining halls spread throughout the Iowa State campus.

How much can you get paid for an on-campus?

The main reason to look for on-campus jobs is to start a source of income. For many people, this is usually their first paid job. So working at an on-campus job marks your step into the real world. Also, there is student debt. Education in a US university is pretty expensive, most students have debts to their name. So with an on-campus job, you ensure you don’t pile the debt higher.

Most of these jobs weren’t really high-paying jobs. In the state of Iowa, the minimum wage for any job in 2016 was $7.25 an hour. The dining jobs even though in huge supply paid a whopping $9 an hour (sarcasm). The best perk was that you got a free meal if your shift was longer than 4 hours. So Hey! who doesn’t like a free meal? And if you timed it right you could get 2 free meals out of your one shift. One at the start and one as a to-go for later. After taxes, this income covered at least the groceries and rent for the month.

My on-campus job at the ISU Bookstore

Standing out of the crowd has always been my thing. It was no different here at Iowa State. While 90% of the people I knew worked at a dining job. I did not. Primarily because everyone else was doing it but also because the free meals didn’t entice me as much. I already had roommates feeding me great food. I interviewed for different positions outside of dining. But the one that I got was at the Iowa State University Bookstore.

The Iowa State Bookstore was located in the Memorial Union of the university campus. It was my home away from my apartment. I spent most of my time outside of classes there. The name bookstore is a misnomer. It sold the books needed for the curriculum but along with that it also sold art supplies, electronics, and Iowa State merchandise.

I worked in a section of the bookstore called TechCyte. This section sold electronics like laptops, iPads, headphones, video games, etc. It paid $8 an hour but the job wasn’t mentally or physically taxing at all. I got to interact with the customers/students and help them with their queries about any devices or software they had. As a part of my job, I also arranged supplies on the shelves and dusted the shelves.

On days when I didn’t have classes, I had to work longer shifts and got lunch breaks. There was a food court right outside the bookstore where a friend of mine worked at a burrito store. During my lunch, I would walk over to his shop. He would make two burrito bowls, one for me and one for himself. These bowls were prepared with EXTRA scoops of rice and chicken. I ate so many burrito bowls that semester that he worked there. We both laugh over it now.

The biggest perk of working at the bookstore was that I learned a lot. Talking to people helped me understand their accents and helped me to improve mine. Also, the people who worked there were the best. My supervisors were super caring and the other students I worked with were super nice. Some of the friends I made here at the bookstore have become my dearest friends. I have so many fond memories of working at the bookstore. I will always cherish them.

I worked at my on-campus job at the bookstore for two more full semesters plus a summer. As my first semester ended and the new semester started, I managed to get a research assistantship with the department chair to work on a research project. So I had to split my on-campus job working hours, I worked 10 at the bookstore and 10 as a research assistant.

My Research Assistantship

A Research Assistantship (RA) is the job of helping a professor with a research project.

The research project I got was focused on engineering education. This research was ambiguous and so this RA was super tough for me. Plus I had never done any research in my life. The little that I had done during my undergrad was dig through Wikipedia articles. But that was about it. However, this was graduate-level research and I had to read papers and journal articles. Also, the whole point of this RA was for me to be able to present and defend my own research thesis to get my master’s degree.

I slogged for hours reading through the papers, not really understanding what is expected. I would be consumed in anxiety before the weekly update meetings, as I had no progress to show for. My post-doc came to my help and she guided me through the basics of the research topic. As the days passed, I started to have a better understanding of the research component. After several months of sheer hard work, I managed to defend my thesis in the end.

It was not a fun experience and I realized that I was not cut out for research. The one thing my research assistantship taught me was that Ph.D. was not an option for me after my master’s and I had to find a job.

Career Fair

There was a career fair at Iowa State every semester. Over 300 companies descended on the campus for 2 days. These companies set up booths, and students got the opportunity to talk to the representatives about internships, and full-time opportunities. There was a wide range of companies who came to our career fairs including some big names like John Deere, and Whirlpool.

All the students dressed in formal suits and ties. The first day was spent interacting at the booth. Only a handful selected by each company on day 1 would make it to the second day where you were actually interviewed for the open position.

A lot went on behind the scenes from a student’s POV to prepare for these career fairs. Strategies were chalked out on what company to target, how to tailor the elevator pitch for each company, how to polish your resume, and how to answer interview questions.

I vividly remember my first career fair. It was a failure. I couldn’t gather the courage to talk to any company representative. I didn’t have a polished resume. My elevator pitch was sad at best. I was gripped by anxiety and maybe talked to 5 people in the whole day. My peers on the other had had interviews lined up and one of them even got an internship offer from the first career fair. The second fair was slightly better but I had failed to land any interviews during my first two career fairs.

The third career fair however was different.

My Internship

The first summer at Iowa State was bittersweet. On one hand, I didn’t have my RA for the summer, almost all of my peers had gone for their summer internships and I was working at my on-campus job at the bookstore. But on the other hand, I got to experience and explore the beauty of Iowa with my friends as we went on several day trips.

During my third career fair, I managed to get 2 interviews lined up. I was more confident and talked to several companies on Day 1. I had a strategy, my resume was better and I was much more comfortable giving my elevator pitch. This career fair is where I bagged my 1st internship offer.

My 7-month internship with Whirlpool corporation at Amana, Iowa began in the Spring of 2018. This plant made refrigerators and I was assigned to the cabinet department. It was my first real-world experience. I was trying to apply what I had learned in college. I also gained a lot of knowledge about how things work in a factory and I had fun doing the projects and supporting day-to-day activities at the plant.

During my internship, I attended my 4th and final career fair at Iowa State. I was looking for a full-time job. I knew what I had to do. Everyone had this one company on their list including me. The whole bunch of us went to their booth almost at the same time. But there were only two reps from the company. Other students went to them and talked for a couple minutes. However, I ended up having a 20-minute conversation with the engineer. But my conversation ended up with an interview. This company was NSK.

Later, I killed the phone interview, and they called me for the on-site. After a full-day interview at the plant, I had a job offer in my hand a few weeks later. That too 5 months before graduation. I eventually went to work for NSK in Clarinda, Iowa. The time I spent there was the best 3 years and 6 months of my life. Little did I know this job was going to be a turning point in my life. I will share more about it in the next part.

My journey of work as a student was full of ups and downs. From a good on-campus job to a tough RA position. From two failed career fairs to bagging a full-time offer 5 months before graduation. I was able to turn things around in my favor. Starting a full-time job marked the end of my work as a student. All three student jobs I did while at Iowa State University helped me lay the foundations of my career. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start.

A good lesson I learned during these times was that, as you navigate along the path of life, you will have failures and obstacles along the way. Don’t get stuck, jump over the hurdles. Convert those failures into learning opportunities and move ahead on the path. As they say, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.

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