The coronavirus has remade the college experience, pushing classes online and emptying campuses. But many California college students are also workers, and for those in the most essential occupations, that hasn’t changed — even as the state has endured a months-long lockdown. 

College students are stocking grocery shelves, cooking takeout food at restaurants and caring for patients. Those activities could put their lives and those of their family members in danger, but like other essential workers, students often feel they have no choice but to go to work, whether to pay for classes or help their families. Others say they feel called to contribute during a time of crisis.

We spoke with seven students who are essential workers about the risks they’re taking, their interactions with customers and patients and how, for some, the pandemic has caused them to reflect on their education in new ways.

Ava Lee is working at Plant Power while she takes a semester off from her studies at San Diego State. The size of the kitchen, she says, makes social distancing impossible. Photo courtesy of Ava Lee

Ava Lee
Student, San Diego State University (currently taking a gap semester)
Shift lead, Plant Power Fast Food

I’ve been working (at Plant Power Fast Food) since right before we opened a little more than a year ago. I work anywhere from 36 to sometimes 45 hours a week, depending on if I get called in a day, which kind of happens a lot. Once this whole thing happened, I’d say 60 percent of our working staff stopped working. I know a lot of people have had to deal with there being a scarcity of hours or being unemployed, but I’ve had to actually work a lot more.

I felt kind of conflicted about (working) because I would rather not have to encounter so many people who could potentially get me sick, then I could just become a vessel for passing it on. I can’t really fulfill self-isolating because of it. There’s literally no way for us to be six feet apart at all times from our coworkers because we have a really small kitchen.

I felt lucky to continue having an income, but I’m also putting myself and others at risk by continuing working every day. I don’t feel like a hero because I don’t really have a choice. I need money. If we don’t work then we don’t get money, and if we do work we could potentially get sick. There’s really no way out.

— Interviewed by Bella Ross

Nurse practitioner student Alyssa Relos juggles her studies with 12-hour shifts in the emergency room: “My life literally revolves around work, sleep, school and Covid.” Photo courtesy of Alyssa Relos

Alyssa Relos
Nurse practitioner student, University of California San Francisco

My mom was a nurse and I grew up in a family of nurses. My dad passed away while I was in nursing school from kidney cancer, and I think that really solidified it for me.

When we started getting news about Italy and how they were running out of Personal Protective Equipment and ventilators, everyone in the States was freaking out. In the ER, we’re busy all the time and that doesn’t change. But with COVID, having patients in the hallways puts employees and other patients at risk. When we learned nurses and doctors were getting sick based on the viral load, we had to adjust our scheduling and make sure no one was in the tents outside the ER for more than four hours.

I don’t know if you ever wore an N95 mask, but it’s really uncomfortable. When we’re in the break room, we’re also wearing masks and goggles and adhering to six feet apart. When I see my coworkers’ faces it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what you look like.’

For March and half of April we were very low census. Now we’re seeing more patients coming in who got too sick because they waited too long to come to the hospital, because they didn’t want to get corona. 

I’m working two to three shifts per week, 7:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Every Wednesday we have Zoom lectures from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. It’s exhausting staring at your computer and being in those meetings all day, even if I’m in my pajamas on the couch.

On my days off I’m the one that goes to the grocery store, because I can skip the line but also I’m considered the dirty one in the household. We’re constantly wiping down doorknobs at home. For a good month and a half, my fiancé slept in the living room while I took the bedroom. And eventually it was like, “Let’s just try having things more normal.”

Sometimes as an ER nurse, it’s a lot of burnout. You get the good patients who are really nice, you get the mean patients who just yell at you all day, you get the sick patients, the funny patients. It’s constant chaos. But I’ve never been so proud to be a nurse and to be in this profession.

— Interviewed by Felicia Mello

Long Beach City College student Erik Velazquez is helping build tents for emergency patients. “I feel good that I’m helping the city, but at the same time, it’s gotten risky for me.” Photo courtesy of Erik Velazquez

Erik Velazquez
Student, Long Beach City College
Crew Leader, Conservation Corps of Long Beach

We’re helping the Long Beach City Fire Department build tents for the hospitals. They are going to be used for the people that are sick or people who they don’t have any rooms for in hospitals. To build one tent, it takes about four hours. They provide us with masks and gloves, so that helps us. 

We’re not staying together; we work in separate locations. We talk to each other like: “We’re going to have three people right here just passing out the tools. And we will have another four people right on the other corner, just holding the bars.”

I feel good that I’m helping the city, but at the same time, it’s gotten risky for me and other workers because, I mean, it’s dangerous catching the virus. Plus, you go home and have your niece or parents or grandparents, and if you catch a virus, you could transfer it to them.

I live with my parents. Before I get home—I usually take a change of clothes—I change in the car. I bag up all my work clothes and just take them straight out to the laundry. My parents are kind of worried because you never know who could have the virus or if you are hanging out with someone at work and you don’t know if they have it. But my dad is not working. I’m helping them to pay the bills right now.

                  — Interviewed by Vanessa Arredondo

Saint Mary’s College graduate student Elizabeth Murphy took a job at Safeway during the pandemic, while her roommate works in childcare. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Elizabeth Murphy
Graduate student in business analytics, Saint Mary’s College of California
Sanitation worker, Safeway

I was hired on as a checker, but because of the whole pandemic, they needed a sanitation department to help with stopping the spread of the disease. So right now I mainly work the front door, which makes sure that we only have 40 customers in the store at one time. We’re making sure that all the carts are clean, everyone is staying six feet apart from each other, and if they’re not we do ask them politely to keep that social distancing space.

Honestly, I’m very glad to be hired on by Safeway because my old job we had to really cut hours down and I said, “You know what, I’ll just get another job. I can work there and help.” I’m going there to not only do a job but enjoy it and just have fun with it. Some people go for the paycheck; I’m like, the paycheck’s a bonus. I’d do that volunteering if I really could.

I used to work 55 hours a week and now I’m only working 40. So for me, I’m actually having more time, so I’m finishing my assignments a lot quicker. What I was used to doing was just doing it the night before and cramming and being, like, super stressed out. 

My roommate and I, we both work. She actually works for a family right now in their house, taking care of their kids. So we’re taking a lot of precautions. We used to sit in each other’s rooms all the time and hang out and drink wine together. But now we’ve noticed we’re kind of separating because we’ll talk through the doorways, but we’ll be like eight feet apart. But we’ve definitely noticed it’s really hard with this whole pandemic because we’re trying to do the things that we want to do, but we know that we shouldn’t. We need to stay at home, we need to take the precautions and just be really safe about it.

We change our clothes. We’re also doing our clothes every other day just to make sure that the virus (isn’t) possibly on the clothes or something, just to make sure that we’re staying safe. It’s just like these little things that we never would have thought of that we are now doing, and I think we will do in the future. It’s definitely changing our whole environment.

— Interviewed by Adria Watson

Santa Monica College student Jessica Escobedo, 22, works as a hostess at Frankie’s Italian Kitchen in Tarzana. “No one in my household has really gone full quarantine.” Photo by Mohammad Djauhari for CalMatters

Jessica Escobedo 
Student, Santa Monica City College
Hostess, Frankie’s Italian Kitchen

I have a mask on at all times. I am wiping down the front of the restaurant at least every 15 minutes with Clorox. I answer the phones, I take the orders, I prepare the takeout, I prepare the deliveries, and I interact with the customers.  It doesn’t feel like I’m an essential worker. It just feels like I’m doing my job.

When the CDC said that everybody had to wear a face mask, I put up a sign that people need to wear facial coverings and mind the six-foot boundary. Not that everybody really pays attention to it, but for the most part, people do abide by that.

I am the type of person that avoids confrontation, and a doctor came in one day and I didn’t realize he didn’t have his mask on until after he paid. And then at that point, I still had to go get his food and then come back and interact with him again. I found it uncomfortable to just be like, “I’m sorry, I can’t give you your food until you have a mask on.”

No one in my household has really gone full quarantine. Financially, my family isn’t available to do that. We have to continue working no matter what. That’s just the circumstances that we are under.

                           —- Interviewed by Vanessa Arredondo

Jordyn Smith fills in shifts as an on-call nurse at UCSF Medical Center while she works to become a nurse practitioner. Photo courtesy of Jordyn Smith

Jordyn Smith, 
Nurse practitioner student, University of California San Francisco
Registered nurse and patient care assistant, UCSF Medical Center

My first day on the Covid unit, I was nervous about it because the Centers for Disease Control guidelines kept changing and I didn’t feel confident about why. But once I got onto the floor, I was really energized by being there. I have an athletic background, and that competitor in me just came out, like, “Let’s just roll up my sleeves and get this done.”

There was one Spanish-speaking patient who we were just working up for Covid and the results were taking a while to come back.  She was just feeling so isolated and scared. Luckily, I speak Spanish and was able to go in and have a conversation with her. We just started talking about tamales and enchiladas, sharing recipe ideas. Later that day her results came back and she was negative. She was in tears with relief to hear that news. But she said, “You were treating me as if I did have it, and you were so kind and came close to me. No one wanted to come close to me.”

It’s a really interesting paradox being a healthcare professional and a student. Our educational experience has been dramatically altered despite this being a healthcare emergency. Even in a global pandemic, nurses aren’t safe from losing their jobs, and we’re all very concerned just like everybody else is about job opportunities when we graduate and even being adequately prepared.

I had to move out of my apartment when I was working on the Covid unit because I was living with four other people. They didn’t ask me to leave, but I just felt like it was going to make everyone a little bit anxious. Finding housing in the city as a single person, that’s taken up any free time I have.

— Interviewed by Felicia Mello

Nursing student Michelle Rodriguez stores supplies in her car for the Coachella Valley mobile clinic for homeless patients that she helps run. Photo courtesy of Michelle Rodriguez

Michelle Rodriguez
Nursing student, California State University San Bernardino, Palm Desert Campus
Student nursing assistant, Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine

We run a nurse clinic for the homeless population here in the Palm Springs area. Right now I’m working under a grant, but most of the other students are volunteers. We’re checking their vital signs, their heart rate, temperature. If they’re having a lung issue we have to of course screen them and make sure it’s asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and not Covid. Today we did a good deal of wound care. The heat makes people’s feet swell and it actually can trigger seizures. Part of what we’re doing is giving people new masks — as homeless people, it’s not like they can just have reusable masks that they wash.

The homeless population, you would imagine they would not want to be bothered by a student or healthcare provider. But actually, they’re pretty eager to socialize. It’s nice to be able to help them talk to a healthcare provider without feeling like they’re being rushed. We’re able to treat their wounds so they don’t end up in the emergency room. Our main drive is to support the emergency medical personnel so they won’t have to respond to these things that aren’t quite emergencies.

I’m 40, so I’m not a typical student. It’s been really challenging as somebody who’s going into a care profession to sit at home and feel like I have some skills that could potentially be helpful. So this is a nice way to connect with the community and be able to offer them some support. 

It’s funny because in my personal life I’m a little germ-phoby. But I don’t know that I feel any more risk at this clinic than I do when I go to the grocery stores. At the clinic I’m an authority in some regard, so I can say, ‘Wait, we can’t talk until you put on your mask.’ Whereas at the grocery store, I can say what I want, but people are people.

It’s been really nice to see some of our more nervous or shyer classmates come into their own. This population, it’s not as formal as the hospital where you’re like, “Hello, Mr. whoever.” People are like, “Hey, I gotta big wound, you wanna see?” It’s brought students into their comfort zone and out of their shell.

— Interviewed by Felicia Mello

Arredondo and Watson are fellows with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists around the state. Ross is a contributor to the network, and Mello is its editor. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...

Bella Ross is a contributor to the CalMatters College Journalism Network. She's a recent graduate of San Diego State University, where she served as editor in chief of The Daily Aztec.

Adria wrote for CalMatters while she was a senior at Sacramento State University majoring in journalism. She wrote and served as co-news editor for The State Hornet and freelanced for The Sacramento Bee....