Juggling act: students balance frontline jobs and online school

Over the past year, ARHS grad Miguel Cruz worked at Big Y while attending online classes at HCC.Photo: Taylor Masteralexis

Every time I go to Big Y in Hadley, I am almost guaranteed to hear ARHS grad Miguel Cruz yelling my name to say hello from another part of the store, as he helps other customers check out their groceries or collects carts from the parking lot. 

Cruz has worked at Big Y for two and a half years and experienced firsthand what it was like to be an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic while attending online community college courses and living at home. 

During the spring of 2020 and through the 2020-2021 school year, a number of students like Miguel balanced work and school, but it wasn’t always easy. A study from the University of California Los Angeles found that due to COVID-19, many students postponed attending colleges far from home, and many also reported feeling more stressed and anxious due to working while unvaccinated and learning online. 

ARHS senior Hadley Doin finished high school a semester early this January and began attending Greenfield Community College this spring. Her plan is to complete two years at Greenfield Community College and then transfer to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At first, she hoped to go directly to UMass following graduation but ultimately, she decided to delay.

Cruz graduated in the spring of 2020 and enrolled at Holyoke Community College, where he majors in psychology. Originally, he planned to attend a four-year university. 

“However, [I decided] I wasn’t going to pay full price for half the experience,” said Cruz. “I’m happy I decided to go to HCC because I feel like it’s a great fit for me.”

Leah Wilson graduated from ARHS in the spring of 2020 is in her first year at Greenfield Community College where she plans to study psychology and education. She also worked at Big Y, for two to three days a week, during the past year, and plans to continue. She always intended to take two years of community college courses before transferring to UMass, but she said a year of online school was unexpected. 

Doin just finished her first GCC semester while working 20 hours a week at the Amherst College dining hall. Working unvaccinated for long hours during the heat of the pandemic caused an increase in anxiety.

 “It was extremely stressful,” said Doin. “I was always worried about getting infected and spreading it to my friends, family, and coworkers.” 

Doin said many dining staff workers tested positive for coronavirus throughout the semester. She found out about a new positive test on campus “almost every day” during the fall and winter surge in cases.

Cruz worked about 20-30 hours a week throughout the pandemic. He described feeling uncomfortable at work and wished he could have quit. 

“It was stressful the whole time and I hated it so much,” said Cruz. “I guess I could’ve stopped working, but I had bills to pay.” 

He noted that the stress customers were feeling due to the pandemic was sometimes taken out on him and his coworkers and therefore created a difficult working environment. Also, customers sometimes refused to follow CDC guidelines or put him in uncomfortable situations such as blaming him for the limited amount of certain products.

Now that Cruz is vaccinated, he feels a bit more comfortable working the frontlines. “I got my second dose on May 15 and I feel a lot less worried about working,” said Cruz. “But I am still slightly concerned because it’s not like the vaccine makes someone completely immune to COVID.”

Wilson has yet to have time to get vaccinated due to balancing her school and work schedule. Once she is able to get the vaccine she anticipates she will feel more comfortable at work.  

“I plan to get vaccinated within the next few weeks,” said Wilson. “Once I get vaccinated I will for sure feel more safe working and interacting with others.”

Doin used to work at Kelly’s Restaurant in the center of Amherst but was given unreliable hours due to lack of business during the pandemic. She ended up having to work more hours during the school year at Amherst College to make up for it. The balance of being a full-time college student while working many hours per week was challenging at times. 

“I worked more hours than I planned,” said Doin. “I found that sometimes I had to prioritize work over school.”  

Both Greenfield Community College and Holyoke Community College held their classes remotely for the entire year. Studies have shown that college students found that remote learning was difficult, with some reporting an unreasonable workload and others a lack of academic or technological resources to help them weather the pandemic. The loss of social interaction, proven to positively affect student success, was tough, too.

Cruz had mixed feelings about attending his freshman year online. “It was really hard in some ways, but really easy in other ways,” said Cruz. “I think the fact that it was online helped me be able to do school from home and then immediately go to work after, but I did not learn as much this year [as I’d hoped].”

Doin found that her engagement in school was negatively affected. “My grades and interest in the material I’m studying have gone down significantly,” she said.

Wilson, Doin, and Cruz are hopeful for an in-person return in the fall. Cruz plans on maintaining his work schedule for the remainder of his college education and Doin plans to decrease the number of hours she works in order to give 100% to her education.

Cruz recently quit his job at Big Y and is still figuring out what he wants to do after he graduates. He is open to many different options. 

Doin is currently undecided about her major but plans to go into the medical field, and she is considering nursing or the pharmaceutical industry. 

Wilson plans on using her psychology and education degrees to become an elementary school teacher.