More than a timesheet: student work during the pandemic

The cancellation of fall collegiate athletics has been a blow to the morale of students on campus and around the country. Many of us can empathize with the athletes unable to finish the final seasons of their lifelong sports, and while the fight for competition to be played at the Division I level continues, the fate of fall seasons for Division III athletes has long been determined.

But there is another group of students affected by this pandemic who seldom find themselves acknowledged in the conversation of athletic cancellations: student workers. St. Olaf employs over a thousand students in the work study program each year, many of whom work in the athletic department.

Their work is instrumental to the operation of varsity and intramural athletics on campus, serving as statisticians, student managers, photographers, groundskeepers and more. For these students, the value of work study reaches beyond the income it provides. It allows them opportunities to engage with communities in the sports they love and those they never knew existed. While many first-years begin work study expecting it to be boring and short-lived, it rarely takes them long to find a sense of belonging with a group of students who are quick to identify each other not just as co-workers, but as friends.

Amidst this pandemic, a once abundant list of athletic work study offerings has disappeared, leaving many students without meaningful alternatives. 

I talked to Doug Byers ’21, a veteran of the athletic department, about what work study has meant to his college experience. Byers started working in the athletic department over winter break of his freshman year. The normal crew that worked video was short staffed, so he volunteered to help film the livestreams for basketball and hockey games. After working a few different miscellaneous gigs that winter, Michael Abdella, now the assistant athletic director for strategic communications, gave Byers an official job as a statistician for the department. One of Doug’s roles involved sitting at the scorers table of basketball games to keep track of each player’s performance.

“For the most part it’s me and other athletes working the games,” Doug said. “The person working the scoreboard, the people working the music, the spotter of the official book. At the table, there are a few adults, but it’s mostly student workers.”

I asked Doug if his role in the athletic department has gone beyond being a way to fulfill his work award and earn money. 

“First and foremost it’s a job, but it’s absolutely become a part of my livelihood. Working with the same four guys pretty much every game, we have a lot of fun with it. It’s a great experience to feel a part of the game,” Doug said. “People like to sell you on the community at St. Olaf, and for me, work study is a big part of that. If you’re a senior and you’re still doing your work study, it’s because you enjoy doing it. So it’s sad to think that’s all changing because of the pandemic.”

With fewer hours available to work this year, Doug has been picking up shifts at the local McDonald’s to make up for the lack of income. As a senior he says that if athletics were to return this winter, he’ll be given first priority on the hours, but understands that the same luxury won’t apply to underclassmen.

When I think about my own work study at St. Olaf, I always come back to the idea of finding community in an unlikely place. I never expected how much my job working intramural basketball games would contribute to my experience on the Hill, and how many friends I’ve made through work study that I otherwise wouldn’t have met.

Since the end of last spring, it’s safe to say that we’ve all grown an appreciation for the little things we never thought we’d miss until they were gone. So much of our news cycle is about the scale on which the pandemic has affected us, but often lost in this coverage are the small moments we miss and may never get back.

As much as I miss my work study, I recognize it’s lower down on the list of things I can expect to return as the year progresses. For the past week, I’ve walked by the Cage in anticipation of the day that chicken tender melts find their way back on the menu, or the day I can sit in the Pause and eat a poorly cooked quesadilla after a long night of homework or play pickup basketball in the Tostrud fieldhouse. 

While the return to campus has been enjoyable in many ways, some things just haven’t been the same. And for someone like myself, the least talked about changes have often been the hardest to live without. If there is a silver lining to the abnormality of our current routines as college students, it will be the newly found joy and appreciation we derive from normality itself. To me, work study is one of the unsung experiences that help define life on campus before the pandemic, and something I will never take for granted again if it ever comes back.

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