The Starving Artists are Going Hungry

For god's sake just give us some money.
Photo courtesy of Southern California Public Radio.


Being a college student is an expensive endeavor. There is no way around it. When compounding that with a school located in one of the most expensive areas in the world, it is no easy task to stay afloat financially. It’s even harder when your free time is limited by your art.

Such is the life of a Performing Arts and Social Justice major at the University of San Francisco. I am somewhat of an expert on the topic since I am a member of said major.

I grew in a lower-middle-class family. At times we struggled to get by, but for the most part, we kept our head above water-or at least at water level. For a handful of reasons stemming from that financial history, I am paying my own way through college. In a way, that’s how it’s been most of my life. My freshman year at the University of San Francisco is my fourteenth year of private school education, dating back to kindergarten. At every step of the way, I have been lucky enough to have received scholarships or heavy financial aid. Over those fourteen years, I’ve spent about a thousand dollars out of pocket for education costs amounting to over $182,000. With another three years at USF ahead of me, I expect that total to double.

I was raised to never take anything for granted and never beg for anything either. Just keep my nose down and keep working. While I had one parent incarcerated and the other on unemployment, I was leading the math team at the most prestigious schools in Hawaii, and among the top schools in the country.

All my life, money, or a lack thereof, has been a theme. My decision on college didn’t come down to academic programs or location, it came down to cost. I could have attended the Ohio State University, or other schools considered more prestigious than USF, but my finances did not allow it.

In my first year at USF, I have been so fortunate to have performed in four shows in less than 9 months, but that time commitment has seriously clipped my ability to work and create income for myself. I am committing 20-30 hours a week to productions. Sure, I do technically have the hours to insert a small part time job into my week. But I usually only know my availability a couple days in advance, and I am expected to be flexible to accommodate any changes and adjustments in the rehearsal schedule. That does not exactly create a recipe for holding down a steady job at the same time.

Now, I’ve listed a lot of details about my personal situation here, but what does it amount to? Well for one, I am not alone in my financial hardships. Throughout the year, it is not uncommon to hear “Pizza? I’d go, but I only have six dollars in my bank account right now.” Nearly across the board, PASJ students are broke, or in the process of going broke. This can be solved in one very easy way.

PASJ productions should be paid.

I have done a lot of soul searching and research on this idea. Many students in the PASJ have worked in “professional” arts before (i.e. having been paid for their art in one way or another). For most of them, getting paid to perform in PASJ would not suddenly destroy their amateur status, because they’ve been paid in the past.

Academically speaking, PASJ majors have to perform in and work tech for at least one PASJ show, respectively, in order to graduate. Any shows beyond that can be taken as elective credits, adjustable for anywhere from zero to four credits. In my time in PASJ shows, nobody has taken the show for more than two credits, and the overwhelming majority of cast members take the show for zero credits. Essentially, most of the cast is doing the show for nothing but experience. The university, on the other hand, profits off of the tickets sales from the shows.

As students, paid shows would be exceptionally beneficial. Most of us are currently struggling to juggle academics and work while maintaining our passion for performing. Because I do not have a set schedule, I juggled four separate part-time jobs while performing in two shows and taking eighteen credits of coursework at the same time. Payment for the shows would greatly alleviate my hardships, along with my peers. Additionally, I would place more focus and commitment to my art.

From the standpoint of the PASJ department, the level of quality for shows would go up exponentially. There would be more competition for roles and more people would audition for shows, raising the level of performance all around. Additionally, it would attract more students to be PASJ majors if they saw a chance at financial stability both in and out of college. After a few years, word would spread through the Bay Area theatre community that USF PASJ students were of a higher level for holding their own in a more competitive program. While the new university administration looking to “trim the fat” of struggling academic programs across the university, paid shows may be the factor that saves the department from the chopping block.

But how can the department afford to suddenly pay a dozen students for 25 hours a week? It’s simple. Most students have federal work study, meaning the federal government will reimburse the university and the PASJ department for the student worker’s wages up to a certain amount, usually around $4,000 for USF students.

What seems like a fantasized pipedream can actually be what takes PASJ to the next level in more ways than one. Students will be more committed to the program in order to remain competitive, more students will come out for shows and transfer to the program. That influx of students in coming years will raise the department’s enrollment numbers and possibly keep it off the chopping block.