On-Grounds Student Jobs Offer University of Virginia Undergraduates Real-World Experience

April 22, 2008 — When third-year student Miles Morrison graduates from the University of Virginia, he wants to work at a non-profit organization, relieving poverty and hunger in Latin America.

But while he is in school completing his Spanish and Latin American studies courses, he's getting on a different bus: he's a University Transit Service bus driver.

Morrison is one of the many students working on-Grounds during their time at U.Va. Combining flexible hours with valuable work experience, campus jobs can fit easily into students' schedules and supplement their academic coursework with real-world skills.

To become a bus driver, Morrison underwent rigorous training, including a course on the "Theory of Turning" to learn how to maneuver the 35-foot-long, 10-foot-tall bus, that can weigh anywhere from 11 to 13.5 tons. According to Morrison, being accountable for the safety of passengers teaches a driver about responsibility and time management. UTS Administrative Manager Kendall Howell, who oversees approximately 120 student bus drivers, said that driving a bus can help transition students into adulthood.

Being a bus driver "is probably the first time in their lives they are given this huge piece of responsibility," Howell said. "There is not a boss looking over their shoulder while driving. There are people in the bus whose lives are in their hands. Only people who are serious about that responsibility get behind the wheel."

Along with shuttling passengers on UTS buses, undergraduates staff the libraries and recreational facilities, for instance, and even work as lab technicians and teaching assistants. 

After applying to be a tutor for students in an introductory chemistry class, fourth-year chemical engineering major Michael Bruce was asked to serve as one of the course's teaching assistants. His responsibilities went from providing extra help to students for an hour or two each week to leading review sessions and test preparation for hundreds of students. After getting used to teaching and presiding over two-hour class periods, he began to enjoy his unexpected job opportunity.

"When you are teaching a class for two hours straight, you get used to being up in front of people, which is always good," Bruce said. "I think the best part for me is being able to help someone understand something. I really feel like that is helping these kids to do better. I think that's the most rewarding part is when I am explaining something and it really clicks for a student."

Fourth-year biology majors Jackie Sherbuk and Sonny Duong work in biology professor Carla Green's lab in the U.Va. Center for Biological Timing. They help manage the lab's mouse colony and isolate DNA from the mice for use in the study of circadian rhythms, a task that required two months of training.
"We can't do any experiments without the work they are doing now," Sylvia LaRue, a senior lab specialist, said of the undergraduates. "Without them we would fall apart."

Sherbuk said employment in the lab has given her a better understanding of her major.

"I've taken many biology classes, but I wanted to work in a lab to experience the research side of biology," Sherbuk said. "Working there has given me a greater appreciation for the amount of work involved in research and the dedication of those involved."

Duong said that his work in the lab motivated him to enter the biology department's distinguished majors program. Both Sherbuk and Duong plan to attend medical school after graduation.

Graduate student Nicholas Douris, who also works in the lab, said that the experience can be beneficial for students who want to continue their careers in science. "And if you want to work as a technician after college, it might be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job," he added.

Yvonne Hubbard, director of Student Financial Services, also recognizes the benefits campus employment opportunities provide students.

"I personally think it is a wonderful thing, because it puts you in touch with administrators and professors and people who run the University," Hubbard said. "It is a great networking opportunity."

Hubbard's office oversees the work study program at the University. Federal Work Study is financial aid that is earned through student employment. According to Hubbard, a variety of jobs can be used for work study, as long as they are not affiliated with a religious organization or do not involve outdoor construction. Federal work study funds pay 70 percent of the student employee's salary, making them attractive candidates to potential employers, such as University departments. Undergraduates can work a maximum of 15 hours a week and earn between $2,500 and $3,000 a year through work study. Hubbard added that even work with some non-profit organizations qualifies as work study employment.

Craig Thomas, operations coordinator for Newcomb Hall, knows firsthand how student employment can turn into a job after graduation. While a student at the University, Thomas worked as an event assistant and manager at Newcomb, the primary student center at U.Va. After graduating last May, he now works in a professional staff position in the building, coordinating student employees.

"They are the ones who literally run the building," Thomas said, of the 25 student event assistants and nine student managers employed at Newcomb. "When I tell people what my job is, I tell them I help them run the building."

The student employees supervise the entire operation of the building, including coordinating event spaces, managing employee schedules and ensuring the safety of the building's patrons.

"Anything that goes on in the building from when it opens to when it closes is our responsibility," said Jessica Vasconcellos, a second-year student who works as a manager in Newcomb.

Thomas pointed to the professional work experience as an important part of student employment. "Part of our whole philosophy is preparing people for life after college," he said. "I tell people when I hire them that this is a part-time job, but it is also a job in an educational institution, so we are going to teach you while you are here."

Thomas added that his employees attend career development workshops each semester. The most recent session covered resume-building; in previous programs, students have also learned about providing customer service and how to solve problems creatively.

In addition to being on the staff at Newcomb, second-year student Jack Bird works as a referee for the University's Intramural-Recreational Sports Department, which employs more than 600 students as officials, facility attendants, fitness instructors, camp counselors and lifeguards.

"This organization doesn't work unless we have student employees," said IM-Rec director Mark Fletcher. "We receive money for student fees to help us support what we are doing and we have $1 million of that going right back to the students [in paychecks] to help them pay for their education or however they choose to spend that money. It is really students investing in students."

Fletcher added that along with work experience, jobs in his department provide a social environment for students. While student employment does provide opportunities to development leadership and career skills, it also can simply provide a place for students to belong while at the University.

Morrison said that one of his favorite parts of being a bus driver is the social network.

"We like having this cultural experience at U.Va. It is nice to have this niche," Howell said of the bus drivers' community. "Where else are you going to have a job with 120 other college students?"

"The best part for students really is the people," said Newcomb's Thomas. "It's a different group of people than they would have hung out with normally, whether it’s a different gender, a different race or just a different way of thinking.

— By Catherine Conkle