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Photo by Rochelle Nicole on Unsplash

The Plight of the Perpetual College Student

I applaud anyone who finished their degree in four years (or whatever timeframe your program requests), got an internship and/or entry-level job, and managed to rinse the stink of “student” off themselves. Bravo.

I’m serious. It’s tough these days. In an age of rising costs (especially for tuition) combined with wage growth that doesn’t keep pace, more students are finding that they have to work their way through school, which detracts from their studies. In many cases, this makes the degree-getting a long game. Indeed, only 19 to 36 percent of students graduate “on time,” and while some blame a flawed academic plan or lack of skills, 40 percent of undergraduate students and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week. That’s 30 hours not spent studying or recharging, and can even prevent some students from being full-time students, which is the only way you’ll graduate on time.

hat was my life. I was in college off and on for 14 years. I struggled to finish on time due to my mental health issues, having to work through college (and still, despite winning scholarships, I racked up debt), an abusive relationship, and bureaucratic nonsense. When I went back for grad school, I experienced all that again, tripled. Throughout the process, I was taken less seriously at work because I was a “student” — even when I wasn’t.

I was temping at a company where many temps worked, some of whom were younger than I. And yet I alone was mistakenly (or passive-aggressively) labeled an “intern.” When one coworker started complaining about student drivers, he looked at me and said, “no offense.” Another, upon hearing that I’d misplaced my keys that morning, asked if my “roommates” had hidden them.

Even when applying for jobs on Upwork recently, I’ve had clients ask me if I’m a student, I guess to see if they can pay me less. Nothing on my profile or proposal indicated that I was a student, and I’m baffled that anyone thinks a student would be permitted to run a Top Ten university’s social media account.

After 14 years, I can’t wash the stink of “student” off myself.

question myself in many ways, wondering if and how I come off as immature and inexperienced, despite having more than five years of experience in my field. I realize now it’s because employers don’t take jobs you had while you were a “student” seriously — even if you weren't a student at the time, or even if you were a full-time employee who took classes part-time. When I was relocating to a new city recently, I jumped on a job offer without realizing it was entry-level, when I should have gotten a mid-level position. Now, I’m having to swallow my pride and work alongside people younger than I am who have less experience yet more responsibility — and pay—than I. It’s humbling, but not in a good way.

Being a perpetual college student also means that you seem like you can’t motivate yourself or manage your workflow well, even if life just wasn’t on your side. To potential employers, colleagues, and even dates, taking a long time to finish is shameful, even though college is hard and expensive. Finishing a bachelor’s and master’s in six years is impossible unless you can devote yourself full-time to it and have no negative circumstances to contend with. While plenty of people are privileged enough to achieve this, plenty of others are unfairly criticized for their tardiness in getting their degree — and the stink sets in.

What can you do to wash off the student stink?

Aim higher. As the saying goes, “shoot for the moon and you may land on a star.” Not astronomically correct, but inspiring. If you’re looking for entry-level jobs and you have the stink of a student on you, you’re asking to be undervalued for an already low-value job. Apply for positions that would challenge you. I’m not advising you to go for CEO when you’ve only got a few years’ experience, just to go for a higher position than you think you might get.

Dump the college friends. Sorry if it sounds harsh, but unless the friends are exceptional, they’re not worth keeping. If you keep drinking and partying with the same people, you may as well still be a student. I’m mostly joking, of course, but finding a new friend group and building a professional network are great ways to grow as a person and demonstrate that you’re more than just a college kid. You might also find a mentor, a maid of honor, or another friendship that’s deeper and more meaningful.

Get a new wardrobe. Like it or not, we tend to dress like the people we’re around. Even if you’ve been in the workforce a few years, you might be dressing “young.” Consider swapping out your heels for flats, your pencil skirts for pressed slacks, and your flowery sweaters for blazers. It wouldn’t hurt to let those stress-induced grey hairs show, either.

ltimately, you’re responsible for the impression you give. I’m tired of being a perpetual student, especially now that I never have to set foot in a classroom again! So, I’m evaluating how I look, act, and style my hair, and I’m working on personal development without an end goal in sight. That is, now that I’m past the benchmarks — which is a student mindset, to be honest — I’m conceiving of my personal growth as a neverending march rather than a competitive marathon.

It’s time to stop comparing myself to others. There are no more grades, no more term papers, no more discounts. We’re in the real world now. Our dreams — and therefore our accomplishments — can be even bigger.

Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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