CHICAGO — Cara Corelli has plenty to do at school. She's serving her second term as student council president at Wauconda High School in northern Illinois. She's an editor of the school newspaper. She studies hard to keep a 3.8 grade point average. And she has an active social life.
But Cara still finds time to work about 30 hours every week during her senior year.
"I've worked since I was about 12," Cara says.
Like millions of students around the country, Cara works long hours after school to earn extra cash and gain valuable job experience. Researchers warn that working more than 20 hours a week can hamper schoolwork. But Cara says in her case the long hours she's spent working have improved her social skills and made her a more disciplined student.
"There are good and bad sides to working as hard as I had to, but I think it's made me a stronger and more independent person," she says. "You have to deal with people in any job you have and learn to be professional and to communicate."
Cara works mostly as a baby-sitter, but has also held jobs tutoring, painting crafts, and working at the public library. She works every afternoon after school and on weekends, usually earning between $5 and $6 an hour. "I'm pretty booked," she says.
Cara does her homework during study hall, when the children she watches are napping, and after she gets home at night. Getting all the work done on time isn't easy, she admits. "I've pulled a couple of all-nighters," she says.
Working long hours is a family tradition for Cara and her siblings. Her three older brothers, Adam, Andy, and Tony, all held jobs while they were in high school.
Cara's parents divorced when she was young, and her mother has worked since then to support the family. The Corelli children didn't have to worry about having a roof over their heads and enough to eat, but any kind of extras they wanted they had to earn. "We kind of learned how to take care of ourselves when I was young," Cara says.
Her earnings have paid for a 1986 Chevy Cavalier and its insurance. "I buy my necessities like clothes and any makeup I need," Cara says. Now she's trying to save some money so she can attend community college next year.
Cara leaves space in her calendar for football games, spending time with her boyfriend, and seeing friends. "It bothers my friends because they have to schedule time with me," she says. Sometimes she gets jealous of friends who have more free time, but on the whole she is happy with her working hours, she says.
"It's given me characteristics I'm proud of," she says. "I'm such an independent person."
Cara has earned the respect of other students and the staff at Wauconda High School, says Terry Stevig, the school's guidance director. "She's had to balance a lot of stuff," he says. "She does it well. She has a real demeanor of responsibility."
But Mr. Stevig cautions that what has worked for Cara doesn't necessarily work for everyone. Not all students can labor so many hours outside of school and still do well in the classroom and stay involved in extracurricular activities, he says. "There's not a lot of students out there who can hold it together like that," he says.
Cara wants to become a teacher and figures working with children is good preparation. She advises other teens to find a job in a field where they have a strong interest. "You have to find something you're motivated to do," she says. "As long as you're doing something you like, it doesn't feel like work."