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Making Ends Meet

October 13, 2010

Another article in the Arab News about Saudi students abroad. In this one, Rima Muktar reports that many students are having to take part-time jobs to supplement their income while studying:

High living costs force scholarship students to take on part-time jobs

 With high rents and increasing costs of living, Saudi students on scholarships abroad are forced to take on part-time jobs to survive.

Instead of spending her time between lecture halls and the university library, Maha Ibraheem, a finance student in the United States, spends her time babysitting for her American neighbors.

“I get paid around $10 an hour for babysitting. I do it because I need the money. The scholarship I receive is not much and is spent on rent, and buying groceries and other supplies,” she said.

“It’s really hard doing this as a full time student and someone expected to get A’s in all my classes,” she added.

Rent in the US can be high, and so many Saudi students are forced to look for supplementary income to cover costs.

“I live in a two-bedroom apartment that costs around $2,000 a month. In light of what I get from the Ministry of Higher Education, I have hardly anything left to spend on food and clothes,” said Ahmed Hijazi, a marketing student in the United States.

“My wife and I both work in a coffee shop and we do shifts to cover each other when one of us has to study for an upcoming exam. But what are we supposed to do when the economy is like this?” he added.

According to US law, foreign students are not permitted to work and do not qualify for social security numbers. As a result, students are forced to look for illegal jobs.

“I’ve tried hard to find a job with decent pay but couldn’t find anything that pays more than $500 a month. I’m now working as a waiter in an Italian restaurant near my house,” said Khalid Zaki, an MBA student in the US.

“The owner of the restaurant did not give me a hard time when I came looking for a job. He took me on knowing that I’m a student and that I need money,” he added.

Amro Jalal, an MBA student in England, gives lessons on reading the Qur’an to local Muslims. “I give private Arabic classes to British Muslims at my house; I’m actually making good money out of it. I think it’s a smart and quick way to make money,” he said.

“I don’t need to waste time running from university to school … I receive around £1,700 a month and my expenditures are way above that, especially since I don’t cook at home and live off pizza everyday,” he said.

“In spite of all this, I still need to ask my parents to send me money every month so I can pay for my car,” he added.

According to Tariq Hassan, a finance student in the United States, there are many Saudi students working to earn extra cash.

“I work as a part-time receptionist at a motel, doing the night shifts. My income is low but the motel offers me free access to the laundry room and the cafeteria when I’m hungry,” he said.

“I will never list this job on my CV when I come back to the Kingdom because it wouldn’t help me at all. I’m just doing it to make some extra cash,” he added.

Arab News tried to call the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Washington but no one was available for comment.

It’s interesting that this story is considered newsworthy in the Kingdom, since working part-time to support studies is normal practice all over the Western world for all but the very wealthy. Even well-off parents often encourage their kids to work so that they learn that university is not a long free lunch.

Apart from the guy who earns £1700 ($2750) a month giving Arabic and Quranic tuition and still can’t make ends meet (my student daughter would think she was rich as Croesus with that income every month…), the most telling comment was from the guy who said that he would never include his part-time work for a motel in his CV when he gets home.

I have a good idea that his comment was driven by a sense that relatively menial work experience would not stand him in good stead with future employers. But perhaps he (and his future employers) should consider that working as a waiter has given him valuable customer service, communications, multitasking and time management experience. Anyone who has worked as a waiter, serving demanding customers with strange accents who are usually in a hurry, will tell you that the job develops those skills and more – especially as your personality and efficiency can bring you extra income in the form of tips. Tariq will also have met people whom he would never normally encounter in student life – another big plus.

Sometimes it helps to think laterally about work experience. For a couple of summers in my student years, I spent two weeks shovelling grease and metal shards from the production lanes of the old British Leyland car production line in Birmingham. While I never put that in my CV, I did learn quite a lot about the car industry and the conditions in which people in the industry worked. It also gave me a different perspective on the disputes that dogged the industry in the pre-Thatcher 70s.

There’s learning to be had from every job, however dirty, tedious and remote from what we think is our deserved place in society. Perhaps that Saudi student should reflect that his learning from the motel experience could be real asset to his future employers.

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