Summer jobs can come in many beneficial flavours

Since coming back from University in July, I’ve been working part-time at a local cafe. My job involves a mixture of cleaning, making waffles, and giving free sprinkles to children I think are especially cute. Free flakes are saved for the lucky few. Given that most of the people I work with are either entering Year 13, or just heading to uni, conversation usually focuses around university life, and how to manage time, money, and freedom whilst living away from home.

In my first chats with the other team members, questions soon turned to what and where I was studying. After telling people I study Social Sciences at Cambridge, most responded with an impressed “Ooh!”, often leading me to smile awkwardly. Although I recognise that people are being kind and supportive, and that some may have genuine interests in Oxbridge themselves, I often dread being asked what University I go to when I enter a new work environment.

“Whilst I recognise that Cambridge has taught me many things, I know that it hasn’t prepared me for the skills needed in practical work”

I’ve had three part-time jobs since school, and in every one I’ve noticed how I’ve been treated differently from my co-workers, often because of where I study. In my first job I was lucky to have a really kind boss, who even left an encouraging note and box of chocolates in my till train when I got my Cambridge offer. I was very grateful for her interest, as well as her patience with me in my first retail role, as I fumbled with the till, and mis-wrote numbers in big red ink on any early markdowns. What I felt less comfortable with, was how readily she allowed me the day off to go to Cambridge for interviews, giving me leave again when I was awaiting my results. It wasn’t having a day off that made me uneasy, but rather the ease with which I was allowed to take paid-leave, versus the difficulties my co-workers had in trying to achieve the same. This sometimes led to tricky interactions with fellow employees, where I had to make clear when I was working, whilst avoiding embarrassing those whose request for leave had been denied.

“The virtual ban on working during term time means that the holidays from University are a fundamental earning time”

When serving familiar faces at work, many would ask what I was ‘doing there?’- quickly checking that my time in retail was only a short-term stint. I even had an old teacher ask if I had messed up my grades at A Level, assuming that could be the only reason why I wasn’t already off to University. In my current job, my boss often refers to my going to Cambridge as a means of explaining why I am able to complete a task well, referring to any efficiency as an inevitable consequence of a Cambridge education. Whilst I recognise that Cambridge has taught me many things, I know that it hasn’t prepared me for the skills needed in practical work. It is recognising this that leaves me particularly uncomfortable with the aforementioned responses from neighbours, customers, and sometimes even other co-workers.


Mountain View

I am disabled and, yes, I get sexually harassed

Asking why I am serving you, while also being a Cambridge student, presents this fantasy that nobody in a retail or service job has never been to University, let alone Oxbridge. Further assuming that entry into University education is a prerequisite to being marked as smart, once again dismissing the fundamental skills and earning gained through summer work. Whilst students will work and or save with varying priorities, the virtual ban on working during term time means that the holidays from University are a fundamental earning time, particularly during the long summer break.

Although retail workers are very often massively over-worked and undoubtedly under-paid, it is wrong to dismiss such employment as only useful as a transitory position. I’ve learnt a lot in the past month at work, and working in spaces used by vulnerable community members has tested my competence and communication. Regularly, I try to balance the delivery of a strong service, whilst working to fit diverse customer needs. Most recently, this need to personalise communication, particularly within a multi-lingual body of staff, has seen me rely on gesture and tone in order to complete various tasks, or to express a variety of information to other staff and customers. Beyond this, given the limited opportunities for working during term, and amidst the rising rent and living costs, the skills and money gained through work are crucial to any seeking to navigate the financial and employment pressures which Cambridge inevitably brings. Oh, and I’ve also learnt never to offer a child smarties, when they specifically request sprinkles.