With public school in-state tuition averages clocking in at an average of over $10,000 per year excluding living expenses, the gilded gates of American universities come at a pretty steep price.
While there are ways to lessen the cost — graduating early, financial aid, taking classes at community college — higher education is still a massive financial burden.
Here are the stories of three women who have gone beyond the restrictions of minimum wage to hustle for their education.
At-home catering business
Medha Krishen makes sure her schedule is meticulously planned out every day. At 8 a.m., she wakes up and goes to the gym. It’s something she’s trying to work on this year — making sure she gets a good workout in and is taking care of her body. This is followed by breakfast, and then classes until the early afternoon. As a senior, she has earned the privilege of only having class Monday through Thursday, so afternoons and Fridays are spent doing classwork and chores. Then, she focuses on her big task: her at-home catering orders.
“My biggest order is usually frozen cookie dough, so I make about 15 dozen [orders] every Sunday afternoon, just because I can make that huge batch in about an hour, and then pack it up and freeze it,” she says. “With my cookie dough, it’s so in demand. Campus organizations love it, professors love it, students love it. So I try to make the process as time efficient as possible.”
Krishen started her catering business when she was about 13. A previous figure skater, she would bring her own meals to lunch breaks to keep up with the rigorous diet and regime. Soon, the other skaters started asking her where she bought her lunches. When they heard she made the food herself, others started offering her 10 bucks for a meal.
Since she was still in middle school, Krishen decided to put 85 to 90 percent of that under-the-table competitor lunch money into a savings account. It’s the kind of foresight that has really helped her out in college. “I have a scholarship that pays for 75 percent of my stuff, and I’m in-state as well. So I only need to cover around $28,000, depending on if the school board will increase tuition again.”
When she came to college, she picked up a part-time job on campus, but quickly learned it was more burdensome than helpful. The job capped the number of hours she could work, even delaying some paychecks when she worked over the allotted hours, and to her, that just didn’t make any sense with the rising tuition and rent costs on campus. “My hourly wage with catering is around $165 per hour. My job on campus was $15 an hour. So why would I ever choose the campus job over my catering business, which is something I also just love to do?”
Krishen says her dream is to have her own TV show on food, travel and politics after a stint in foreign policy. She wants kids, but knows it would likely impact her career in diplomacy. “There is no paid maternity leave in the U.S. … I wouldn’t be able to work up the ladder as fast as white males. So I know my side hustles will definitely become my full-time if I’m trying to raise kids.”
Krishen’s family are immigrants from Kashmir — a long-contested region at the northernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. Their mentality was to be really great at one professional job, she says, and that was the pinnacle of what defined success. Having multiple jobs was equated to failure.
But she disagrees. “I wish someone had told me about diversifying my income when I was 13.”
YouTube and influencer
In her third and final year as a business student at the University of Texas at Austin, Hannah Fawcett runs the YouTube channel Laughing Pikachu. With almost 200,000 subscribers, she has expanded her Pokémon unboxing videos into a consulting business to help other channels grow by better understanding their performance metrics.
“I started the channel back when I was a high school junior,” she says. “One day I was just watching videos on YouTube, and I came across Pokémon card unboxing, clicked on it, and thought it was pretty cool.”
Fronting $20 for a pack of cards with the idea that it would never happen again, Fawcett filmed her hands unboxing one tin of Pokémon cards. It didn’t stop there. Once a week she continued uploading videos, and before long, the channel started gaining traction.
“One day, someone in high school came up to me and said, ‘Do you make Pokémon unboxing videos?’ and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, how did you find me?’”
Right now, about 50 percent of Fawcett’s income comes from ads, and the other 50 percent comes from other side hustles. The earnings are put toward rent and part of her tuition costs. She also has a job on campus, which is mostly put toward savings and various investments. Knowing how to manage this level of income is something that she says she learned quickly, but mostly because she had the means and access to do so. “I have the best parents in the world, who helped me learn the ropes for things like setting up a Roth IRA at 18-years-old. It allowed me to take on more projects I’m passionate about, like donating Pokémon cards to refugee children or investing in sealed cards.”
With this sort of work, Fawcett has learned a lot about asking for her own worth. She recounts a brand deal where she found out her initial ask was merely half of what the brand was paying other content creators. “So I almost signed a deal that was severely undercutting the amount I could have gotten,” she says. “Had I not reached out and initiated that awkward but necessary conversation, I could have lost thousands of dollars.”
Making money on a platform like YouTube comes with its own set of challenges.
“You can learn a lot and it’s important to stay competitive, but a lot of the stuff I learned two or three years ago is completely irrelevant now because of how quickly everything changes,” she says. “Right now, I’m really interested in empowering other channels. I want to help others realize different revenue streams on their channels rather than just depending on ad revenue. It allows me to be really creative and find new revenue streams and develop new relationships.”
Fawcett’s tagline in every video is “Don’t ever be ashamed to be you, because you are your own type of beautiful,” a mantra she sees as core to the channel. “Finding ways to translate that into a business or project they are passionate about is something I wish more people took the time to pursue,” she says.”
If anyone needs to find Sokhna Samb, all they need to do is look out for the woman lugging around a case of heavy camera equipment on campus. A senior at Franklin & Marshall College, Samb is a film and media studies major with aspirations to work in the entertainment industry after graduation.
While videography is something Samb says she would love to do full-time, the pressure of security and the need for financial stability weighs on her mind. “In the film business, jobs go on as long as the project is in series. You could be working for a month and then not working for three months, and I cannot be dealing with that right now,” she says.
She is a part of several Facebook groups that help her find gigs, and hopes to continue utilizing these platforms as she works a 9-to-5 role after graduation.
Samb worries if she is doing enough to create her personal brand. “I just haven’t gotten around to designing the whole business page and logo. I need to get on it,” she says. “I’m a senior though, so I’m concentrating on my film thesis and securing a full-time job. People still hit me up, and I’m still getting paid, so it’s okay for now.”
Access is another obstacle that she wrestles with. “Even for designing a logo, that requires knowing how to use Photoshop and having access to Photoshop, and Photoshop is expensive,” she says. “This is the first year I’ve edited on my own laptop, because I finally saved up to buy Adobe Cloud. And that was $290 for a year. I’m gradually learning how to invest in and run a business. I want to learn more about how to package yourself and sell your brand to the customer. People want to pay for an experience — I wish I had figured that out earlier.”
For now, Samb is happy to pay for her living expenses and use her freelance work to supplement her basic living needs, as well as the things she loves to do — going to the movies and watching more films that fuel her creativity.