US Catholic Faith in Real Life

What work colleges teach students about the dignity of work

Earning while learning is the new way to get a college degree.

By Katie Bahr | Print this pagePrint |
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During her first semester at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, freshman Tori Janet found herself studying a topic she never expected: Frappuccinos. Soon after beginning classes, Janet began working at Mimi’s Cafe, an on-campus coffee shop serving Starbucks drinks and sandwiches. 

“I made myself so many cheat sheets to figure out what goes in each drink, and what you need to ask each customer,” Janet says. “It took a long time to figure out.” 

Juggling work shifts three nights a week with a full load of classes and softball practice was not an easy adjustment, but Janet soon found she could rise to the challenge. By her second semester, she was a student manager at the café, supervising classmates and helping maintain inventory.

“As you learn, you can kind of grab hold of little tasks, and then take on more and more responsibilities as you progress,” she says. “I kind of took the initiative. I would make schedules for what needed to be cleaned or organized, to make sure we ordered what we needed to order; everything to make sure life is easier while we’re at work.” 

Janet, who is now a sophomore studying education, was assigned to work at Mimi’s through Silver Lake’s work college program, SLC Works. Now in its second year, the program requires all residential students to work at least 10 hours a week in on-campus positions or internships at affiliated organizations around the community. In exchange students receive a small biweekly paycheck, as well as a $2,800 tuition credit for each academic year. 

Matthew Goff, dean of SLC Works, sees the program as an extension of the Franciscan values on which Silver Lake was founded: community, collaboration, and servant leadership. He also says the program is a valuable tool to help students prepare for their future careers. Through their jobs, students learn soft skills they might never pick up in a classroom, including how to conduct themselves professionally and how to work well with others.

“It’s the idea of starting to build skills that their future workplace might want, right from the get-go,” Goff says. “Students here have work positions with learning outcomes we put into place to show that they’re growing professionally. Students are not just washing dishes; they’re developing an understanding of how washing dishes helps a business grow and work.”

A successful model 

By becoming the first Catholic institution to incorporate the work college model, Silver Lake is hoping to join ranks with only a handful of work colleges around the country. Currently, there are seven federally recognized work colleges in the United States, enrolling a little more than 5,000 students nationwide. 

According to the Department of Education, these programs “recognize, encourage, and promote the use of comprehensive work-learning-service programs as a valuable educational approach” by making work-study an integral part of each institution’s educational programs and financial plans. 

While each work college is unique, they all require every student living on campus to work between 10 and 15 hours per week in exchange for reduced or eliminated tuition. 

One of the oldest work colleges is Berea College in rural Kentucky, which was founded by the abolitionist Rev. John G. Fee in 1855. The first interracial and coeducational school in the South, the school initially required students to work so that they could better afford their educations. The school also sought to destigmatize manual labor, which was often associated with slavery, and embrace work as “a dignified task.”  

In the early years of the college Berea students held jobs at the town’s first hospital and fire department and helped to install the town’s water system. In the early 1900s the students quarried stone, felled trees, and made and laid bricks to build the school’s Phelps Stokes Chapel, which is still in use today. 

“Work has been a part of Berea’s ethos, essentially since the beginning, for more than 160 years,” says David Slinker, program and operations manager for the college’s labor program. 

“If you don’t work here, you don’t go to school here,” Slinker says. 

Today, approximately 1,600 students are employed in on-campus jobs in positions ranging from bookkeepers and teaching assistants to farmers, foresters, and even furniture craftsmen. In return for their hours worked, students pay zero tuition. 

“We always talk about it as a living and learning environment, with students receiving a practical education as well as a lot of soft skills,” Slinker says. “They learn how to work as a team, how to be productive, and how to take initiative. You can’t put a price on those kinds of things.” 

The benefits found at Berea seem to hold true across the board at all work colleges, according to Robin Taffler, executive director of the Work College Consortium, an association of the seven federally-recognized work colleges in the United States. According to a 2010 Outcomes Survey from the Consortium, students in work college programs graduated with an average of $12,121 in student debt, compared with the national average of $21,740 for public college graduates and $27,710 for private nonprofit colleges.

Surveyed students also reported satisfaction with their work experiences, with 75 percent of graduates agreeing that the work college experience helped prepare them for their first jobs and 83 percent crediting it with making them better problem solvers.  

Daniel Graff, the program director for the Higgins Labor Program at the University of Notre Dame, believes work colleges have spiritual benefits as well, providing the “perfect vehicle” to connect “the life of the mind and the life of the body.” 

By integrating information about the value and characteristics of work into the coursework, Graff says colleges move students toward what Pope Francis refers to in Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home) as “a correct understanding of work” as a setting for “rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.”  

“We have a tendency to be completely alienated from work . . . and to see it as a necessary evil rather than something inherent to a positive human experience,” says Graff. 

“If college is the place where a young person becomes an adult, develops their conscience, and finds out what they want to do, I think it’s an important and positive thing that students begin to see themselves as workers and reflect on what that means.” 

Beginning a new tradition 

Promoting a faith-focused understanding of work is one of the main goals Goff and other members of the Silver Lake administration have as they continue to develop SLC Works.

“We’re a Franciscan institution, and those are things we talk about—the dignity of work and how every single position matters, whether you are the person vacuuming the floors and scrubbing the dishes or someone doing research or in the library,” Goff says. “Every single position matters, and there is dignity in every role.” 

Pope John Paul II clarified the importance of work as a means of fulfillment and dignity in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), writing, “Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense becomes ‘more a human being.’ ” 

Rather than seeing work as an obligation, Pope John Paul II said work should be viewed as a way of serving one’s family, society, country, and “the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history.” 

Sister Lorita Gaffney is Silver Lake College’s executive director of mission integration. She believes the SLC Works program is a callback to the early years of the college, when it was staffed entirely by Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. Sister Gaffney, who attended the school as a novice in the 1960s, still remembers the rigorous work requirements every sister was expected to uphold. 

“Going to school back then, we washed the dishes, we cleaned the floor, and we were not beyond menial work,” she says. “I think we learned every job is important because if we didn’t clean the toilets and wash the dishes, it wouldn’t have been done.” 

In addition to teaching students about work, Sister Gaffney said SLC Works also provides a valuable service to the community by removing financial roadblocks to education for those who need assistance, including first-generation or low-income students.

“As a Franciscan Catholic college, we try to make it part of our mission to serve the underserved,” she says. “We feel a responsibility to help those kids to be successful students in any way we can.”

Part of the initial challenge in starting the program at Silver Lake, Goff says, was convincing faculty and staff members who had never worked with students that it was worth their time and energy to learn how to manage them. 

The school decided to have a several year rollout of SLC Works, with the work requirement applying only to freshmen and transfer students for the first year. After that first year proved to be successful, the school expanded the work requirement for the second year to apply to all students living on campus. 

During their first year in the program, students are randomly placed in “level one” jobs—jobs that might be physically demanding but that are easy to learn. Each year after, Goff says, students are expected to find and interview for their own jobs while advancing to higher levels of work. Ideally, by a student’s junior or senior year they should be in a supervisory role over freshmen or sophomores or working in a field closely tied to their career goals. 

One of the challenges of instituting this program was changing the school culture: teaching students that their work requirement is just as important as their academic studies. If for some reason a student cannot maintain or find a job, it is treated similarly to a failed class. Students who lose their jobs or cannot find work are required to meet with counselors to be placed in new positions. If they cannot maintain their jobs, they risk academic probation or suspension. 

“If they fail out of the work college, it’s similar to failing out of academic college,” Goff says. “They can be on work college suspension or probation, and it’s very aligned with the typical academic program in that way.” 

This year, students are required to attend weekly staff meetings touching on topics related to career development, work-life balance, and even basic knowledge about how to fill in a W-2 form or direct deposit slip. Just as students receive grades for their classes, they are now evaluated and held accountable for their work performances. And at graduation, students receive both academic and work transcripts.

“We have students working on campus who have never had a job before, so showing up on time was not something they even thought they had to do,” Goff says. “Now they understand what it means to have a job, to be employed and be a part of a team and understand how you’re accountable to your colleagues and they’re accountable to you.”

Growth and meaning in work

Erin LaBonte, an associate professor of art at Silver Lake, has four student assistants working for her this year, hanging artwork, organizing the studio, and categorizing the college’s permanent collection. While keeping the students occupied and accountable does require extra work on LaBonte’s behalf, she believes SLC Works to be “an absolute positive.” 

One surprising benefit of the program she has seen is a greater sense of community in the art department. Last year, she remembers walking out of the building at 9 p.m. and the department was still lively with students socializing and working on projects. 

“This gives students a place to go between their classes and another touch point between their faculty and supervisors,” she says. “It’s nice to have that kind of energy and community in the department.” 

Those enriched relationships are something Goff has noticed as well. He believes that by requiring students to get involved in campus life, the school can provide students with more guidance and emotional support. 

“Sometimes we have college students who fall through the cracks and don’t seek out the resources they need,” he says. “Now they have a supervisor they see four to five times a week and a lot of different people who are looking out for them and wanting them to succeed.” 

Goff has already seen a rise in the school’s retention rate for last year’s freshmen who participated in the inaugural work program. 

“I wouldn’t say vacuuming floors will have a student coming back the next year, but the relationships they have with their supervisors and their teams help make them want to stay,” he says.

Sophomore Elizabeth Turner is certainly benefiting from the program. An art and graphic design major, Turner is working for LaBonte in the art department for the second year. Last year her job included everything from organizing art around the school to painting backdrops and working as an ice sculptor. This year, as lead student assistant, much of her job involves managing students who are younger than her and teaching them how to hang and categorize works of art. 

One of the biggest things Turner has gained from her experience is a new sense of confidence in her own abilities. 

“When I first started, I was scared to talk to the other people I was working with,” she says. Now her job includes giving assignments and looking over student schedules to make sure everyone can work. After working closely with other students for more than a year, Turner considers her coworkers some of her best friends. 

Janet also enjoys how working on campus can make a small college feel even smaller. While working at Mimi’s Cafe, she liked getting to know her customers and felt pride in how even a well-brewed cup of coffee could bring someone else joy. 

“I met so many people that I probably wouldn’t have talked to,” she says. “It made me open up and try to understand people in a new way.” 

That well-earned wisdom is helping Janet in the job she now holds as a sophomore. As a program coordinator for SLC Works, she enjoys being able to mentor students who are younger than she as they adjust to the challenges of working on campus. Janet sees the job as valuable teaching training and a way to help others. 

“One of our main goals at Silver Lake is to try to commit service to your community,” she says. “Here, you get to show service to your coworkers and your classmates, and you get to dedicate yourself to that. When I’m working I feel like I’m giving back to God and I’m giving back to other students.”

This article also appears in the March 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 3, pages 12–17).

Image: Muhammad Rizwan on Unsplash

Tuesday, March 6, 2018