Editor’s Note: The original writer wished to remain anonymous for this article.
I was always a pretty decent student.
Without trying, I could breeze through most classes with a B. If I applied myself, I might snag an A but typically settled for an A-. As long as the class relied on writing, I knew I’d pass with flying colors. Coupled with a newfound love for Statistics, I figured a life in Psychology was in the stars. I saw myself perfectly suited for a faculty position somewhere, teaching other bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students about the secrets of the brain or the mysteries of the unconscious. School came naturally to me, so 20-year-old me didn’t see why I shouldn’t become a professional student.
But as luck would have it, the economy took a nosedive during my college career, meaning that millions of Americans went back to school to earn the degrees they didn’t need decades prior. Suddenly, I wasn’t just competing with other millennials for a Ph.D candidacy, but the Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers who already had degrees and extensive, relevant work experience. My 3.7 GPA, practicum, two poster presentations, published research, volunteer work, grant-writing experience, student council stint, solid personal statement, and I didn’t stand a chance against MFTs and LCSWs who knew what they were doing. I deluded myself for five years, applying to universities with acceptance rates ranging from 1 – 4%, but eventually shelved the notion – Clinical Psychology was not in my cards, and I needed to start playing the hand I was dealt.
Whatever that was.
While finding myself (and a new career path), I did what any job-seeker in my situation would do – I turned to the internet. Wading through the literal onslaught of creepy listings and scams to find actual employment soon became a talent, and I was able to support myself through jobs and gigs found online.
The day job I found eventually flourished into a promising career unrelated to Psychology, and I currently make enough to live fairly comfortably. But the gig economy continues to be a draw, as I can easily make a sizable chunk of disposable income through extra work. Some gigs are a one-off, like a TV appearance or photo editing, while others are mid-term, like copy-writing or novel editing. And then there are the more long-term jobs – mostly writing – that become as fun as they are interesting. Video game reviewing, trivia quiz creation…I even tried my hand at personal dating assistance. Whatever paid well and didn’t require anything sexual was worth a shot as far as I was concerned.
And then it happened – I found the job that scratched that old itch: doing kids’ homework.
The listing I found seemed innocuous and totally unrelated to doing homework for college kids, but the carefully-worded paragraphs quietly revealed what the gig was really all about. A short email exchange and a call from an unknown number later, I soon found myself enlisted as the new team member in a group of writers with a common goal – writing papers for Chinese students.
Why Chinese students specifically?
One of the head writers was of Chinese descent and saw a need they could fill. They knew how to reach other Chinese-speaking students and promised them something they desperately needed but couldn’t get on their own – good grades in a language that wasn’t their strongest suit. The writer took many of the papers and passed on what they couldn’t do to the others. What started out as one former college kid taking on the homework of their kin soon became a well-oiled machine with an entire team from around the country – an operation that worked tirelessly to ensure Chinese kids got the grades they (and often their parents) had paid for.
This isn’t to say that only Chinese students use these services – other similar job listings yielded results for seemingly every segment of any given student body. Some groups protected the students’ information so fiercely that the demographic information was hard to discern, while others had the students’ full name and university information available for anyone to use for online-sleuthing purposes. It became clear that this service was utilized by anyone of any age, gender, race, or creed – but all were students who trusted random people enough to get them a good grade (and were willing to pay for it).
The learning curve was surprisingly difficult – for one thing, I was accustomed to turning in my absolute best work on a paper, and expected to do the same for these students paying no small sum per assignment. I quickly learned that what was best for me was not in the best interest for the student. How else was an ESL student supposed to explain the seemingly overnight mastery of the English language? Therefore, learning broken English from a Chinese-speaking standpoint soon became a necessity.
I asked for previous writing samples from each student and read them intently, looking for repeating mistakes in their attempts to discuss modern American theater or French literature – topics they’d surely never need to know about in their future endeavors. Speech patterns began to shine through with each passing assignment; articles like “a”, “an”, and “the” were constantly forgotten, there was inconsistent usage of the pronouns s/he, and tenses were all over the place. I altered my writing to fit that of the students; the papers passed muster, and the grades met expectations.
Soon, I was approached with writing college application essays and personal statements. Again, patterns emerged, but not just from their writing. Often, students’ backgrounds were similar to each other – only child with a pet, hailing from a city I’d never be able to locate on a map. They came to the States to study and hoped to return to an already promised position in their dad’s company, degree in hand to show off at business meetings and trade agreements. One student boasted a portfolio worth over $400 million USD – money that may as well be on a far-flung planet as far as I was concerned. It became evident that it didn’t really matter what I wrote or what this kid’s grade ended up being, as they’d integrate themselves back into a carefully-laid, luxurious life ready and waiting for them. Their reality was so dramatically different and unrelated to my own, connected only through my ability to write in English at a native level and my agreement to accept what is surely chump change for the already established individual.
It was at that point I felt so small.
I had heard enough about the rich Chinese kids coming to the States to study – I’d dated one in college myself – but I never realized the extent of their wealth and just how different their world was from mine. How they could talk about money in the hundreds of millions. How they could expect to land coveted positions in massive companies upon graduation. How they could easily game a system they wouldn’t even need in 2 – 4 years.
How they could trust a complete stranger to write papers, take classes, and craft personal statements for them simply because they didn’t trust their own ability to do so in a foreign language.
As the semesters trudged on, the shock faded, and I was now able to write personal narratives and admission essays on autopilot. They provided vague personal details, but it didn’t matter – I was able to write convincingly enough about completely made-up-yet-plausible “life experiences”. How coming to the US had been a huge turning point in my life. How I missed specific foods from my hometown. How I yearned to cuddle with <insert pet name here> upon my return. How I played League of Legends in my free time. How I enjoyed superhero movies. How I had cloudy opinions on whatever matter is at hand. How I could’t seem to get tense agreement down and seemingly forgot the original gender of people from time to time. How the proper use of articles supposedly eluded me.
And my bills were definitely being paid – after tallying it up, I discovered that I’d earned an extra $10,000 in a year. Certainly not enough for me to quit my day job, but it made for a nice savings fund and even paid for a new PC and some video game consoles.
Did the would-be professional student not-so-deep inside me ever get mad at these kids who were unethically handling their education? That they were able to do God only knows while I slaved away on their midterms and finals? That they paid their way to a college degree while I earned mine by my own merit?
Strangely, no – in fact, I felt completely apathetic.
Truthfully, these kids didn’t seem to even require the degrees they were paying me to earn. From what I gathered, most of them would go back home and take over their father’s company or do something else of value that was already set up for them long before they’d even set foot in the country. And it was the kids that cared the least that trusted us the most – the ones who had failed the course three times already for not doing any work whatsoever were the ones who were most likely in no need of a degree to begin with. There was no way they’d ever use their in-depth knowledge of Wuthering Heights in a business meeting anymore than I’d utilize anything from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms during a corporate presentation. They knew that. And they couldn’t have cared less.
But we both had something that would prove useful to the other party. They had money, and I had a native-level proficiency in the English language. A business transaction. Nothing more.
And it showed me that 20-year-old me had so little understanding of the world (like most twentysomethings do). That the inexperienced worldview I had meant I could only imagine what had always been in front of me, which translated to a life based off limited observations. That I now knew more about the world doing this than I ever could have in that alternate life where I was a professional student. That opportunity was literally around every corner. That just about anything could be turned into a job. That everyday routines can turn into hidden talents.
And that, if you’re willing to learn, someone will pay you to do it for them.
Feature image via Pixabay