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York University student Eleisha Akin works weekends at her local McDonald’s restaurant and is spending the summer as an HR assistant at the Toronto university in order to pick up experience in her field as well as earn money.


With the average undergraduate university program costing $6,373 in tuition for the current academic year, up about 40 per cent from 10 years ago, it is little wonder that many students feel the need to support their studies with part-time work.

Having just completed her third year studying human resources at York University in Toronto, Eleisha Akin is happy to put her new-found skills to the test. While she has been working weekends at the local McDonald's restaurant in her hometown of Aurora, Ont., since before she arrived on campus, she is also spending this summer as an HR assistant in the university's office of the dean in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.

Though she acknowledges that her parents help with her tuition fees, she wants to work to help pay as much as she can herself.

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The extra money also gives her the freedom to have a social life.

That in itself helps her become more focused on her budgeting, a skill that she says definitely requires a certain amount of discipline. Once she sets a monthly dollar limit for going out and doing activities with her friends, she says she tries her hardest not to exceed that amount.

Ms. Akin knows that that sort of financial restraint will pay dividends, both in the short and long term.

"Being a student, you really just have to watch every penny and really try to save what you can because if you save now, you're going to be better off in the future for when you graduate," she says.

Though the financial benefits are a bonus, money isn't the main driver for her part-time work. The 20-year-old is focused on gaining a career in human resources as soon as she has finished her fourth year at York, and while she is gaining hands-on experience in that field from Monday to Friday, by working seven days a week through the summer, she admits that it is testing her ability to plan an effective schedule.

But doing so is a skill that both Ms. Akin and many other university students consider vital, particularly when it comes to juggling a part-time position along with studies, and not jeopardizing grades in the process.

"You really have to know yourself," she says. "You have to know how much you can handle because if you think, 'Oh, I can take five shifts a week,' and then you have a full course load, you might not be able to handle that."

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Luckily, York University and other institutions offer plenty of support in helping students achieve balance, both in their scheduling and their finances.

Dianne Twombly, manager of career development at York, says that, in general, she recommends that students focus on finding their feet in their first year of university, work out their time management skills, develop friends and contacts and nail the academic side of things. With that in good standing, they are well set up to find a part-time job in their second year.

"Academics are important and students are incredibly stressed right now over their academics and student debt," she says. "It can feel overwhelming, and so a part-time job is a great thing to do in order to offset that student debt and also to explore opportunities that might arise after graduation."

Given that a lot of York University students are first-generation university-goers in their families, she says that for a lot of them getting a job is a necessity, as their parents are often not financially well off. However, it can also open up connections for them to the Canadian labour market, something that their parents may not have.

For those who qualify for the Ontario Student Assistance Program, York offers work-study positions, operating in places such as athletic centres or the library. The advantage of these roles is that the employer has full awareness of the student's other responsibilities.

"The hours are restricted because we recognize that they have studies that they have to take care of, and when it comes to exam time or when final assignments are very heavy, we can be flexible around the hours," Ms. Twombly explains.

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Outside of campus jobs, a sympathetic employer can be hard to find, though.

Laura Mitchell, director of the student success centre at Concordia University in Montreal, says that juggling work with academic commitments is just one of the problems students might encounter in the working world. For instance, a negative work experience might decrease a student's motivation to work, while the increased hours can also be a strain on social and family life, particularly for mature students with young children at home.

On the flip side, though, she explains that in certain situations students also get to notice what lower-paid jobs are really like, which can be an incentive to study harder.

It also shows them the limits of what can effectively fit into their daily lives.

"[Some] students start university thinking you can do it all, and sometimes you have to negatively experience the limits of your time to learn from that, and that can have a positive outcome eventually," she adds.

Dalhousie University in Halifax puts a big emphasis on employment, as studies have shown that goes a long way to helping with the retention of students.

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According to Jill Malolepszy, the associate director for career and leadership development, the more the university can connect students with employment opportunities, the more engaged they are.

In addition, she says that Dalhousie provides opportunities to help students realize that, no matter what jobs they're doing, they are developing additional skill sets related to their field of study.

That is particularly important for students who are not in faculties with built-in co-op models, such as arts and social sciences.

"What we're trying to do is build capacity for these students to further develop their transferable skills," Ms. Malolepszy says, "because at the end of their degree they may be presenting differently to employers because they don't have as much work experience."

Dalhousie's career and leadership development centre also puts an emphasis on helping students make appropriate decisions when it comes to taking on additional work responsibilities. For instance, it may be difficult for some to know that juggling studies with work might decrease their marks, so advisors help find solutions, such as extending their studies.

Ultimately, though, it's about setting the student up for success, both in the classroom and beyond.

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"Students don't know what they don't know," Ms. Malolepszy adds. "Often they think they're moving away for the first time and that university might be an extension of high school, and it's actually very different."

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