Pay for College and Your Future – Without Draining Your Energy

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How to balance things so you can have it all in college
(and after you graduate)

Let’s face it, paying for college as a first-generation student is tricky. It’s hard to balance work, applying for scholarships, joining clubs, and getting a 4.0. Oh, and did I mention? You’ll need to do all of that while treating your body well enough to enjoy that college degree for years to come.

I’m a first-generation college graduate. The mantra in our house was “get straight As, so you can get a scholarship, so you can go to college.” 

And it worked! I soon found myself at Kansas State, working part-time jobs, leading several clubs, and taking extra classes. I drank a lot of coffee and didn’t sleep much. The way I saw it, I could relax once I had that degree.

Sound like someone you know? I’m guessing you can relate.

Now that my college days are behind me, I can tell you that graduating doesn’t mean life gets easier. You’re only at the bottom of a much bigger mountain to climb. There’s always another promotion, a cooler job, a shorter deadline, or a crazier boss. 

So, I’m here to share with you two tips that will make life in college – and after graduation – a little bit easier. Because you can have it all.

Tip #1: Pay yourself, literally, with scholarships

I meet too many students who think scholarships are a waste of time. “Those are impossible to win,”’ they say. To them, winning a scholarship feels like winning the lottery.

The truth is, a lot of scholarship money goes un-awarded. There are hundreds of websites, library books, and resource centers to help you find scholarships related to  your major, interests, gender, abilities (or disability), and more. Many small or medium-sized programs are constantly looking for worthy students to come knock on their door. Why shouldn’t that be you?

Using scholarships to pay for college helps save you money now, and will save you a ton of time (and headaches) in the future. 

Here’s what I mean: 

One trick is to track how much money ‘per hour’ you’ll earn by applying for scholarships, and compare that to how much you’d have to earn through the typical ways to pay off loans in the future.

First, let’s look at how much you’d earn at a typical job, either in college – or after graduation:  

  • Part-time jobs pay anywhere from $7-20 per hour 

  • Many non-technical entry-level jobs pay anywhere from $30k to $50k per year, the equivalent of $15-$25 an hour

After graduation, if you land a job with a starting salary of $50,000 (i.e., $25/hour) it would take you 100 working hours to pay-back $2,500 in student loans (and keep in mind that loans also collect interest, so you’ll have to pay back a lot more than just the initial $2,500).

Now, let’s calculate how much you’d be paid ‘per hour’ applying for scholarships: 

  1. You find 10 scholarships you have a reasonably good chance of getting

  2. Let’s give roughly 2 hours for each scholarship’s paperwork and essay. 

  3. Let’s say you’re awarded 1 out of the 10 (a very conservative estimate just to prove my point) and you get a check for $2,500

  4. That breaks down to getting paid $125 per hour to apply for scholarships

  5. [$2,500 in scholarship winnings] divided by [20 hours of application time] = $125 per hour

  6. And who knows, you may win more than one!

In this scenario, it took only 20 hours of time to earn $2,500 (versus the 100 hours it would take to pay back a loan of $2,500, not even factoring in the usual interest rates).

Plus, when you use loans, you have to pay them back with money you earn in the future. 

If scholarships help you reduce your original loan amount, that means your future money can be used for future things: a nice apartment, a big wedding, starting a family. Your future self with thank you.

And that’s how you pay yourself, literally.

Tip #2: Pay yourself in health and relaxation

“I’m healthy! I go to the gym, drink diet soda, and eat Lean Cuisine!” – me, a decade ago.

When I say pay yourself in health and relaxation, I’m not talking about lifting weights and restricting calories. I’m talking about giving your body the fuel – and rest – it needs to stay healthy so you can enjoy your college degree for decades to come. The stress doesn’t end after you graduate, and it’s important you learn to care for yourself now – before you start to develop mental or physical problems that will only compound over the years. 

Everyone is different. There’s no magic diet or optimal miles to walk each day.

What does matter is investing the time to find out: what does health and relaxation mean to me?

Do you love knitting? Reading? Hiking with friends? Cooking amazing meals? 

If you’ve spent most of your life working hard to get into and do well in college, you may have forgotten how to treat yourself. You need to re-learn how to relax. By relaxing, you’ll engage your parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces stress and inflammation in your body.  Which means you’ll feel better, sleep better, and be healthier overall.

Here’s what to do:

  • Pick three activities you might find relaxing that aren’t related to school or work

  • Go and try them, and see how you feel afterward     

  • If it turns out you didn’t like one of them, that’s good news! Now you know it’s not relaxing, and never have to do it again

  • Repeat this process until you find at least three activities that are truly relaxing, and 

  • Keep doing them!

By spending even a few hours a week focusing on things that aren’t class related, you’ll be amazed how much more energized you are during the hours you do have to focus on school. Give it a try, and tell me if you agree.

And that’s it! Between scholarships and self-care, you can pay yourself – without burning-out your body, or a hole in your wallet.


About the author…


Danielle Cornejo Calhoun is Vice President, Platform Strategy, at Weber Shandwick San Francisco. She's a first-generation college graduate who majored in Journalism with minors in Spanish and Non-Profit Leadership. She grew up in Kansas City, has lived in Querétaro, London, Denver, San Francisco -- and now calls Washington state home. Read other articles Danielle wrote for college students and recent graduates here.