As a low-income, first generation college student, I had to be resourceful when it came to taking care of myself while keeping up as an engineer. I’m grateful to Harvard’s generous financial aid program that provided me with a full-ride. I am lucky to have graduated without student loan debt but even with the tuition and housing costs alleviated, there are still many costs that I needed to worry about. Whether it was a course textbook that cost $500 even though my professor WROTE THE BOOK or ordering take-out as I pulled an all-nighter finishing a problem set, the costs of college mount up and take a lot of planning to make sure a sudden expense fits within your budget.
Many low-income, first gen students need to work during college in order to help out their families back home or maybe just so they have less that their families need to worry about. It took me most of college to figure out the tips and tricks to save money and use the experiences to my benefit. Leave it to the scrappy FGLI kids to find ways to succeed with all the odds against you.
Hopefully one or two apply to you!
See if any of your course textbooks may be available online. Buying online versions of textbooks is usually more affordable than hardcover but you may also be able to access pdfs.
Buying used textbooks from campus stores or from classmates who took the course before can save you time and money. Buying used from a classmate also gives you the opportunity to ask for tips about how to get the most out of the course. Plus, those notes in the margins may be useful! It’s helpful seeing which topics others found most helpful or how it applied to the class.
See if it may be possible to borrow the textbook. Usually, you can find textbooks at your campus library! It may be hard to check out if there’s limited copies, so look into courses you may want to take and try checking them out before going into the marking period. If your library doesn’t have the textbook, see if the professor or teaching assistants have spare copies you might be able to use. One time, after explaining to a teaching assistant that I couldn’t afford the $300 textbook they only used to assign homework problems, she offered to scan the questions for me so that I could answer them without needing to buy the book. You’d be surprised how innovating the teaching staff can be!
Alright, it’s safe to say you’re probably going to have at least a job or two. Whether you need a paycheck to support your weekly Problem Set dominos habits or you’re sending money home to help your family with bills, campus jobs can be both convenient and better paying than other opportunities.
The kicker is, you’ll be better off trying to find a STEM-related job. It may be harder to find than a job in your library or cafe but having a job to put on your resume to show experience in the field will help you in the long run as you apply to profession positions later on. Start out with any labs you may work in to see if they have any assistant positions available. Check out your campus job portals to see if there are any teaching assistant positions open – these will usually come up a little before a marking period starts, so be sure to plan ahead.
If a course requires you to purchase anything to complete a project, they should be supplying the materials or funds to do the work! If you’ve been tasked with creating something for course credit and need to buy anything in order to complete it, ask your profession and teaching staff what materials they are providing and the funding to make up for what they don’t have. Typically, departments will have many materials available but they aren’t necessarily upfront about providing them. ASK.
Yeah, yeah, you’d think this would be higher up on the list but there’s more to financial aid than just tuition! See if your school provides any assistance in other areas. For me, having my financial aid program cover my tutoring expenses helped me continue seeking help for a mechanical engineering course so that I was able to understand the material and perform well on my exams. There may be other assistance than your school’s financial aid program is offering but you may have to schedule time to meet with an officer to navigate through the system. Don’t be afraid to ask how else they can help you because they often have a much better understanding of the campus-specific resources available to you.
I think many people believe that your only shot at getting college financial help is through financial aid or a scholarship out of high school. Luckily, there’s actually quite a few scholarships or grants that you can still apply for once you’ve already started college or based on your plan of study. While these scholarships may not be as financial-need based, there are still a lot of merit-based scholarships out that at all levels!
So you’ve gotten a dream internship for the summer and can’t wait to do research in a field you’re passionate about. But then you find out that it’s an unpaid position.
Luckily, there are quite a few organizations and programs that are able to fund these opportunities. Outside funding can help you afford housing while you do the work and make sure you aren’t missing out on an income you may have had taking an unrelated job that you might not be able to use on your resume. Check out the opportunities and programs page for some examples.
I cannot stress enough how far you will go with networking! Not only will networking with professors, mentors, and peers help you professionally as you look for a full-time job after graduation, but there’s a lot of help it can provide while still in school. Keeping in touch with professors is a great way to find out about potential teaching or research assistant positions that may open up. It also helps to have a professor or mentor who you enjoyed learning from who can write you a solid recommendation letter for summer jobs, post-grad positions, or graduate school programs.
See if your school or department offer free career trainings. You’d be surprised how much you can learn and add to your list of skills just by asking professors what their labs are working on. For me, this was getting machine shop training, clean lab experience, X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) Spectroscopy, and Raman mapping.
Check with your school or program to see what help they can offer with professional testing, either with training or cost of exams. It can get expensive to order test prep materials or do online courses to study for these exams, but you may be able to find opportunities within your program that can offer this. Another way your school may be able to help is with testing or application fee waivers, or by facilitating the test so that there is much less coordination required of you.
If you’re interested in hearing more about scholarships or grants, send me an email at [email protected]!