Students on the frontlines of pandemic struggle balancing school and work

They say their job’s a welcome distraction from the uncertainty of virtual learning

Kathryn Rodrigues of Whitefield, left, is studying to be a physical therapist assistant at River Valley College in Claremont. She also works four jobs, including as a pharmacy technician at CVS. Normally, she says, she thrives under the pressure of a full schedule. (Courtesy photo)

When Marti Milan of Claremont finishes her weekend shifts working as a nursing assistant at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, she’s exhausted. She’s been in the job for two years, but these days there are constantly new policies to learn and an ever-present worry about being exposed to coronavirus. All of that makes it difficult for Milan, 21, to shift back into student mode come Monday and do her coursework from Colby-Sawyer College, where she studies nursing.

“I find it far easier to focus on things that bring me more entertainment, like binging 10 episodes on Netflix rather than writing my seven-page essay,” she says.

Working students are used to juggling academics and employment, scheduling shifts around classroom obligations or project deadlines. But for many students who are continuing to work through the pandemic, the balancing act is more difficult than ever. Students like Milan are grappling with self-directed learning and busy workplaces.

“It’s hard to say which is more stressful right now,” Milan says. “Work is especially stressful with everything going on, but school has become more stressful as the workload has become more intense.”

Kathryn Rodrigues of Whitefield is studying to be a physical therapist assistant at River Valley Community College in Claremont. She also works four jobs, including as a pharmacy technician at CVS. Normally, she thrives under the pressure of a full schedule.

“Changing my environment is how I am able to function best, especially when I am in the midst of trying to absorb new material,” says Rodrigues, 26. Stay-at-home orders have made changes of scenery difficult. “Recently I have been finding myself unable to motivate, which is not a great thing.”

Because of that, Rodriques has picked up extra shifts at the pharmacy. She likes the challenge of the work and the fact that it forces her to be wholly present and focused.

“Although it has its risks, it is a welcome distraction to the overwhelming nature of learning a hands-on career online,” she says.

Rodriques’ boyfriend, Alan Hicking, also appreciates the structure that work offers. Hicking is studying biological sciences at Keene State, while working at AutoZone in Claremont. His biggest worry is that his graduation will be delayed because of the pandemic.

“The hands-on lab classes I need can’t be offered online,” he says. He wants to pursue a doctoral degree after getting his bachelor’s, so staying on-track is important, but he knows the timeline of his studies is out of his hands for now. Amid that uncertainty, maintaining his regular schedule at work has been a relief.

“The stability is something to hold on to,” he says.

Prioritizing is tricky

Teresa Knight, program director for nursing at Granite State College in Concord, said the pandemic is affecting working students in different ways. Some have had to withdraw because of work obligations, including four of the six students in a nursing leadership class and a student who oversees a pulmonary unit in a New Hampshire hospital. Other students, like those who work as school nurses, are trying to get ahead on their courses while work is calm.

“It’s really all over the place,” Knight says. The school is focused on giving students flexibility to put classes on hold, if needed, or to dedicate more time than ever to school, Knight says. “Higher ed has to be ready when they are. We can’t dictate how they handle different sets of priorities.”

Still, knowing what to prioritize can be tricky. Emily Charuhas, 20, a Keene State student who lives in Charlestown, has fallen behind on school work because she finds virtual learning overwhelming. Her teachers have been understanding, even helping her put together a schedule. When she’s stressed about school, working at a grocery store can feel like a break, at least until she gets there.

“I’ve actually enjoyed going to work lately because it gets me out of the house,” she says, “but everything at work is a constant reminder that we are in a pandemic … constant phone calls, new social distancing measures put into place each day, hour changes.”

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