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Christina Valenti admits she's one of the lucky ones.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate student is one of the nearly three quarter of a million students who rely on work-study financial aid programs in the United States to help pay for educational expenses.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 43% of all college students are employed in some capacity, either through financial aid programs or as part-time students at their schools. With most of the country's on-site learning cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, most work study programs have had to shut down, costing students valuable sources of income.

Valenti, however, is fortunate to have two part-time UTC-sponsored jobs that allow her to work remotely. As a graduate student with an annual tuition of nearly $15,000, every dollar earned is one she doesn't have to repay later.

"I was worried a little bit, but we are able to do our stuff online, so we are able to access everything," said Valenti, who is employed by the UTC web team in addition to working as a graduate research assistant for the English department.

"It's really hit some people hard. Several of my friends' fellowships have not gone through, which is tough because graduate work is really expensive. Losing my jobs would really have affected me."

According to the federal Office of Student Aid, colleges that temporarily close due to the coronavirus are allowed to keep paying "disaster-affected" work-study students. However, many of the jobs, such as teaching assistants, resident dorm advisors, library workers, lab technicians, cafeteria workers and administrative assistants, are not needed with in-person classes cancelled.

UTC sophomore Kaili Lewis was not so fortunate, losing work-study income as a calls operator in the Communication Department and with food service provider Aramark. Fortunately, the Suwanee, Ga., resident is able to live at home as she finishes her spring semester courses.

"I live with my parents, so for me, the money would be nice, but it's not a necessity," said Lewis, a native of Ohio. "The tough part is I like to work to keep myself busy when I'm not studying. I know some students who lost their jobs and are struggling to make it work. A lot of my friends in Ohio lost their jobs."

The majority of students at UTC — 88.9% in 2019, according to U.S. News & World Report — apply for need-based aid. Federal aid in the form of Pell grants make up a large portion of the aid, but still often leave students thousands of dollars short of meeting the complete financial need at a time in which tuition rates are on the rise.

The U.S. News & World Report college report showed that 59% of 2018 UTC graduates had taken out at least one loan and the average student indebtedness was $24,274, a similar figure to other area four-year state universities — $25,372 for University of Tennessee 2018 grads, $25,774 for MTSU grads and $22,872 for University of Georgia grads.

At UTC, student employment comes in several forms. The Federal Work Study Program offers jobs that include 10-15 hours per week. Students choose jobs they are interested in and interview for them.

The Academic Service Scholarship Program awards a scholarship portion ($1,100 per semester) and a work portion ($1,000/semester). Students must provide 125 hours of service per semester in jobs chosen by the same group that approves positions in Federal Work-Study. A student must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 entering UTC as well as a record of community and school service.

The university also offers on-campus employment in such areas as the Library, University Center, Bookstore and Parking Services. The Job location and Development Program in the Financial Aid office helps students find part-time employment in the Chattanooga area.

George Heddleston is one of the many who rely on students to keep things running. UTC's Vice Chancellor Communications and Marketing is overseeing the website team's effort to install a new content management system. Having the ability to keep his six-student group working remotely has kept the project on time.

"It's a gigantic task," Heddleston said of the three-year project. "Our student employees are really pushing us forward. Without them we could never get this done. I can't say enough about how hard these kids have worked. Christina, for instance, has been tasked with editing over 5,000 pages from several departments so theta re more reader friendly. She's been unbelievable.

"The work-study programs are invaluable to us and to the students, so I know it's tough on some of them right now. I can relate to these kids because the only way I made it through school was through the GI Bill."

Valenti will graduate in August with a Master's Degree in English and hopes to build a life in the area.

"I fell in love with Chattanooga," she said, saying she will continue to work for the Communications Department until the new CMS is up and running.

Lewis, a business management major, will have the option to return to her jobs when in-person classes resume. She's not sure of a career choice yet, only that she has every intention of earning her Bachelor's Degree.

"Things will get back to normal," she said. "I've adjusted pretty well so far, I think, but it will be nice to get back on campus."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6296; follow on Twitter @youngsports22

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