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Those Were the Days, My Friend: Student Jobs When College Was More Affordable

Published onAug 16, 2023
Those Were the Days, My Friend: Student Jobs When College Was More Affordable

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way1

Source: Vega 2014

Any student job entails a social context as well as the arrangements and processes of the work itself. Before sharing some of my student job experiences while a UC-Berkeley undergraduate in the first half of the 1960s, I should point out that most of us – even those with minimal financial resources – felt less anxiety about making ends meet than students do today. I was hardly alone in thinking about my part-time employment as integral to an unbounded educational quest rather than finding it a hindrance to earning a degree.

The absence of tuition charges by the bourgeoning University of California system in that era was a huge factor in our quality of life, almost taken for granted. As I recall, California residents paid a $64 incidental student fee per semester when I began my freshman year in the fall of 1960 (perhaps nine or ten times as much in today’s dollars). The amount doubled my second year, which seemed alarming at the time. In 1970, several years after I graduated, an “educational fee” would be added. Although out-of-state students had paid tuition all along, that was the beginning of a slippery slope. As of the mid-1970s, in-state residents paid $630 per year for tuition and fees combined, and non-residents paid $2,130 (Vega 2014). Even with inflation taken into consideration, there has been a quantum change in the affordability of a college education since then.2

Reflecting on our sense of opportunity and hope for the future way back then, I share warm memories of four student jobs, two part-time during semesters in Berkeley and two full-time during summers back home in Los Angeles:

On campus, my duties at the small Social Welfare and Criminology Library seemed perfect. I spent around 15 hours per week rotating several tasks with two other student workers who became my friends. The kindly Finnish librarian helped us rearrange scheduled hours to accommodate crunch times in our academic work. When not busy at the check-out desk, I reshelved books, memorizing several Dewey call number categories and taking a few minutes here and there for browsing relevant to my social sciences field major. Students asked for my assistance in locating source materials. Although hardly qualified as a reference librarian, I gained skills in research methods in my increasingly successful efforts to fulfill their requests. I recall their distressed discussions over the suicide of the wife of one of the distinguished professors on campus, Erving Goffman, whose articles were on 2-hour reserve. In their serious approach to professional careers, these students served as role models for me.

• Having accompanied a close friend of mine to a “rushing” event at the Jewish ZBT fraternity, I became one of the “hashers” when he was recruited as a “pledge.” Let it be noted that I had no interest in joining – not that I would have been an attractive candidate or could have afforded the fees. My duties involved set-ups for lunch and dinner – making sure silverware bins were filled, pitchers contained fresh water, and the like – then carrying the large platters piled with luscious food from the kitchen to the long tables where the fraternity members were seated. Our pay: the same food, which we ate at a separate table after they had been served. We also could show up in the kitchen every morning, one by one, just like the fraternity members, and short-order our breakfast directly from Big Lou, the African American cook who offered jovial banter along with her perfect hash browns and whatever else our appetites craved that day. Only during my last semester did I receive five dollars a month, after the university decreed that some minimum monetary payment was required for all jobs, whether on-campus or not. Work spilled over into play. I “fraternized” with the brothers, watching movies at the nearby hole-in-the-wall art theater with one and riding with him in his Daimler sports car to attend the Monterrey Jazz Festival. I remember shooting hoops out back with another, nicknamed Super Jew, a star athlete who went on to a brief Major League baseball career. Fancying myself an athlete too, when I was a member of the track and cross-country teams I often had to race across campus after workouts to be on time for the dinner shift. The required discipline of time management may help explain why I was most successful in my classes during the semesters I juggled these multiple commitments.

• Coursework at UCLA occupied my first two summers home from college in Los Angeles. Returning after my junior year, I reviewed the bulletin board outside the Student Placement Center and was hired for one of the jobs posted, even though I attended a different UC campus and technically was not eligible. I spent the summer happily in the basement of the main library as a solitary pamphlet binder. My semi-skilled tasks ran through shaping the stiff covers to the correct size on a heavy-duty paper cutter, moistening the already affixed glue tape-strips, positioning the pamphlet, securing it on a saddle stapler machine, and then carefully writing the call number in indelible ink. Repeating and repeating again, all day long at a comfortable pace, I enjoyed the routine: each pamphlet was different, and I couldn’t stop myself from browsing some of them.

My last summer before graduation, I found another job through the same office. A firm that designed and built machinery to shape and weld large pipes from broad coils of sheet metal needed a bilingual intermediary to help comply with the specifications of a contract with a major German corporation, Hoesch. I wrote translations of all of the text on the plan drawings; I also had to convert all measurements into the metric system because the local engineers insisted on using feet and inches. The German engineer sent to oversee the project spoke little English. He called on me regularly to interpret his design questions and requests. In one indelible memory, I stood between him and the locals, translating kaltgewalzter Stahl from a massive technical German-English dictionary, with only a vague idea of what “cold-rolled steel” might be. Nonetheless, I was uniquely qualified. I had taken drafting courses in high school, preparing to study architecture in college, a choice of major which lasted one semester before I fled from the College of Environmental Design to the College of Arts and Sciences. My German skills had been honed during a year with the new UC Education Abroad program at the University of Göttingen. The pay was gratifyingly high at – if I remember correctly – $2.83 per hour. Just as important, my role, while daunting, seemed almost professional. On the other hand, the work blended into play. When one of the engineers would give the signal, suggesting “a little lunchee,” I joined them for meal that extended into an early afternoon of drinking at a bar and grill. And was I on-duty or off-duty the day I was asked to serve as guide for the German engineer at nearby Disneyland?

The ethnological Gestalt of these jobs comes more readily to mind than the ethnographic details, retrieved as fragmentary memories, at best. The routine tasks were demands performed for pay, of course, but the learning experiences and ways of being useful felt like rituals of belonging. How different from the distracting, debilitating, even demeaning forms of employment much more common nowadays, which never would be tolerated without the need to narrow the gap between funds needed and funds available for a post-secondary education!

As a painfully immature kid – having begun my first college semester at the age of seventeen and a half – I gained self-confidence from the responsibility of remunerated work and benefitted from the scheduling structure. Like many in my cohort, I could make ends meet with part-time employment and did not have to take out loans. In that highly competitive academic setting, the stresses were more immediately intellectual and interpersonal. For all of us, fairly high levels of ability and diligence were necessary to attain even a C grade in courses. Often, an A was beyond my reach and I usually struggled to earn a B. But, switching from the narrow technical training in architecture and embracing requirements and electives in the liberal arts, academic competition and preparation for a particular career became lower priorities.

We were successors to the so-called “silent generation,” and the incipient political activism of our predecessors in the late-1950s set the stage for more consequential initiatives and interventions in the first half of the 1960s. At least for me, the awakenings were almost devastatingly overwhelming – not to get into differences then and now in political work involving student radicalism.

During our childhoods, the threat of nuclear annihilation had made us aware of the Cold War. As undergraduates, we were traumatized by the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. By 1964, the rise in civil rights activism – and, on our own Berkeley campus, the Free Speech Movement – mobilized students. Only in my last semester (in the fall of 1965) did the war in Vietnam, and the number of young men being drafted, escalate rapidly. I mention these events as a counterpart to the economic constraints, thwarted political trajectories, and intensifying environmental crises that impinge on the optimism – along with career opportunities and overall life prospects – of so many students today.

In contrast, my jobs were more than sources of income to cover expenses in affording an undergraduate education. They were a component of idealistic and open-ended explorations of educational possibilities directed toward a maximally fulfilling life, both to achieve personal goals and to contribute somehow to a better world.


1. The prototype is a Russian folk song. The English version was recorded by Mary Hopkin, a Welsh folk singer, and became a big hit in the 1960s. Later in the song: “Then the busy years went rushing by us; we lost our starry notions on the way…” (Wikipedia, Those Were the Days (Song), accessed February 13, 2023). Video performance (Accessed April 10, 2023):

2. The 2023-2024 combined tuition and fees for undergraduate residents amount to $15,444, with an additional $3,858 for the health insurance plan. The estimated total cost of attendance, including personal expenses, ranges from $32,850 to $46,008, depending on whether housing is on-campus or off-campus. New non-resident students are charged an additional $32,574 as supplemental tuition (UC Berkeley 2023).

References Cited

UC Berkeley. 2023. Student Budgets (Cost of Attendance). Accessed April 8, 2023.

Vega, Lilia. 2014. The History of UC Tuition Since 1868. Daily Californian. Accessed February, 13, 2023.

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