Hustling your way to graduation: The ups and downs

It was in April 2016, mid-semester of what was or was supposed to be my second semester at university when I received the news. My uncle could not afford to pay for my tuition fees any more, and I had to drop out.

I was heartbroken and spent the greater part of that day crying; my dream of becoming an engineer had just been shattered … or so it seemed.

It is not that everything had been rosy up until that point. Far from it. I had survived on one meal per day for most of the previous semester (001, we used to call it), had to walk about 5km to and from campus every day to attend lectures and, whenever there was some academic pressure, which was often, I had to sleep on the floor in friends’ dorm rooms and classrooms.

Despite all these sacrifices, though, all seemed lost, and I spent the next two years as a college dropout.

As it turned out, however, dropping out of college was one of the turning points in my life. From 2016 to 2018, I not only sought work and tried to put myself back in school, but I also read extensively and acquired several practical life skills that later proved to be priceless.

At first, I struggled but, with time and through a combination of hustling and formal work, I managed to save enough and put myself back into college in February 2018.

What I did not know then was that putting myself back in college – though initially an uphill task for a 19-year-old – was easier than staying in college. Yet, somehow, I am now on the edge of finishing my four-year chemical engineering degree programme. If I am to be honest, I should have finished college in 2021 when about two-thirds of my classmates graduated.

Making a buck when it matters

So, what kept me in school for an extra year (at least)? Hustling! We almost always choose to look at the brighter side of hustling, but the truth is that hustling has ups and downs in almost equal proportion. In my case, hustling kept me in college long enough to take all the required courses, but it has, unfortunately, and regrettably, also kept me there for much longer than I ever intended.

You see, hustling is probably fine when you are just looking to make an extra buck, but when it is a matter of your dropping out of college due to financial restraints or hustling a little way longer and harder than normal, it ends up taking away valuable studying time which, as you might guess, will most likely affect your grades.

The result of my college hustling lifestyle has been that, even though I was a straight-A kind of student in high school, I found distinctions to be almost elusive in college. Luckily for me, I have managed to keep most of my grades in the upper second class.

There is this one module though, Engineering Mathematics III, which is one of the toughest courses of my programme. The module demands almost exclusive attention which, while juggling staying in school with a healthy results portal and a healthy financial record, I was simply not able to provide. I honestly believe that, without the pressures of hustling, I would have passed this course easily and would have graduated by now … but then, well, without hustling, I would not have managed to stay in college for four years in the first place. I was between a rock and a steel wall.

I am not alone. A 2018 Henley Business School white paper, ‘The Side Hustle Economy’, indicated that 34% of those aged 16-24 make money on the side in some way – a symptom of growing financial pressures.

They are known as ‘side hustles’, but often, this is a lifeline for students and young people. According to Save the Student, two-thirds of students have a part-time job, while half of working students say their studies suffer as a result.

Is hustling worth the pressure?

While students’ extracurricular ventures may show enterprise, the truth is that they point to growing financial pressures, especially in Zimbabwe. Side hustles provide relief for those under financial stress – but they can also leave students thinly stretched.

The first semester of my third year is probably the one that stretched me the most. We were doing nine courses and a mini-dissertation while preparing to go on internship the following semester. I had severe financial problems that semester and was at risk of dropping out once again.

My hustle that semester (August to December 2019) was selling bulk airtime to obtain cash (which was a scarcity during that time), then selling the cash to obtain USD before selling the USD to obtain EcoCash (mobile money), which I used to buy the airtime. Then the cycle would repeat itself.

This little hustle required three to five hours of my time each day and left me exhausted, with neither the time nor the energy to study. I did survive the semester, but the grades were not that great and so was the side hustle. I even considered quitting at some point. When I look back, this was a hell semester.

The reality is that most side hustles are not sustainable sources of income. The best way to explain this is to take the side hustle from my hell semester as an example. While selling bulk airtime, I hustled long and hard but made just enough money to survive for a few days.

This was obviously never going to be sustainable, because the last four weeks of the semester (which include two weeks for exams) bring unbearable pressure which forces almost everyone to focus exclusively on academics. I ended up spending every dollar in my possession and could not continue with the hustle at the close of the semester.

It is important for me to point out the fact that all the hustling during the hell semester was only for my upkeep. A Good Samaritan whom I will not name but will be forever grateful to, paid my tuition fees.

My final year proceeded smoothly only because I had transitioned into something much more sustainable.

My advice to fellow campus hustlers is to try to strike a healthy balance between education and income-generating endeavours. It is important to remember that hustling can be harmful to one’s body as a source of exhaustion and stress.

Hustlers need to carefully plan their days of the week, scheduling days effectively and adding in the necessary breaks in between work hours as well as including rest days for the week. They also need to be able to set time aside for self-care and not lose touch with their hobbies. Also set aside time to catch up with friends and family. It is important to step back, look inwards and evaluate hustles. The key is to balance personal life, academics, and work.