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While our family traveled around Taiwan over the holidays, tasting local dishes and climbing Alishan Mountain, our teenage son chose to stay behind – so he could work.

Andrew’s temporary office position paid US$7.25 an hour, equivalent to the U.S. minimum wage. For him, the job presented a rare opportunity in Taiwan to earn some spending money and enjoy his independence. He took the subway to and from work, bought his own lunch, and worked on social media outreach at the office. At the end of his two-week stint, he received a paycheck totaling about US$400.

That’s hardly a fortune, but the benefits our 17-year-old son gained from working can’t be measured in dollars. The jobs he has taken in Taiwan and back home in the U.S. – from raking leaves to teaching tennis to the office job – have taught him responsibility, leadership, and initiative. They have showed him the value of hard work and the value of money, earned by himself, hour by hour.

They have also armed him with skills that are invaluable in the workplace and in life generally, including time management, collaboration and communication.

Yet in Asia, few students work. Instead, they spend their free time studying, pursuing extracurricular activities such as music, and going to cram schools. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Education, more than half of senior high school students on the island attend cram schools, mostly to help them keep up with their schoolwork.

Many parents feel that good grades and high test scores are imperative for their children to get into a good college. They are certainly right, especially given today’s increasingly competitive environment for college admissions. At the same time, however, admissions officers for schools in the U.S. want to see kids with well-rounded backgrounds, whether through involvement in sports or other extracurriculars, or jobs.

“Universities in the U.S. practice holistic admissions and look beyond grades and test scores,” says Andrew Lowman, director of college counseling at Taiwan’s Taipei American School. “What a student presents outside should show character, skills, abilities or interests. Jobs are a great thing to have on a college application, because they demonstrate responsibility and time management skills.”

Employers, too, prefer to hire young people with prior work experience. Ricky Hong, general manager of 104 Job Bank, a Taiwan-based human resources website, notes that students who do internships before graduation tend to get jobs more quickly and with higher pay than those without such experience.

Growing up as a Chinese-American in Washington, D.C., I sought out part-time work for similar reasons as my son. My parents were strict and didn’t give us a lot of freedom. We weren’t poor, but our family had few dollars to spare on toys or brand-name clothes. If we wanted them, we had to buy them ourselves. In my first paying job, when I was in fifth grade, I teamed up with my brother and a few neighborhood kids to deliver newspapers on bike.

Later, I babysat and taught art at summer camp. At Schupp’s Bakery, I learned to operate the cash register, only to realize to my horror one day after the shop closed that I was short about fifty dollars. The owners let it go, but the experience taught me a lesson about handling money that endless lectures by my parents never could.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks @Flickr CC BY 2.0

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks @Flickr CC BY 2.0

My siblings also worked, sometimes at jobs that many young people today wouldn’t deign to take. Two of my brothers, who went on to college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, respectively, landed part-time jobs at McDonald’s. David, now 49, also washed cars, bussed tables, and sold tickets at a movie theater. These jobs “helped with my work ethic, my appreciation of how hard it was to make money, and overall appreciation of money,” he says.

My husband, meanwhile, helped out at his family’s Chinese restaurant from a young age, stringing beans, answering phones, and taking orders. All of us continued to work part-time in college, to help cover tuition and living costs.

Our children live a more privileged life than we did as first-generation Americans. They still choose to work, though, and we encourage them to do so. Claire, 15, started her own cat-sitting business in grade school, winning loyal customers by writing daily updates on her charges’ eating and pooping habits. She grasped the real meaning of responsibility when she had to make cat rounds on Christmas Day, while everyone else was having fun.

Both Andrew and Claire have learned leadership on the job. The tennis camp where Andrew worked asked him to run things for two weeks when the director was away, requiring him to lead kids in training and to interact with parents. Claire, an avid ballet dancer, unexpectedly found herself teaching dance to a dozen campers, when the counselor at the summer camp where she was volunteering injured her foot.

In fact, volunteerism accounts for a healthy share of our children’s overall work experience. In the U.S., many school systems require students to complete a certain number of service hours to graduate from high school. Helping out at the polls during elections and sitting on a youth-court jury have exposed our kids to interesting fields. And where paying jobs aren’t easily available, volunteer jobs can provide opportunities to develop work and life skills, and strengthen resumes for both college and future careers.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Eric Tsai