Left: illustration of a woman lying on a bench, daydreaming about money and underwear. Centre: woman smoking weed and opening her coat which is full of booze and cigarettes. Left: man cleaning giant sneakers with a toothbrush.
Illustration: Jangojim.

How Students Are Dealing With Pandemic Job Instability

Necessity is the mother of invention.
Fatima Jabateh
Spa, BE
Gailor Kiaku
Brussels, BE
illustrated by Jangojim
May 21, 2021, 8:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

The pandemic has deeply impacted student life around the world, gutting the social aspects of further education and decimating the job markets that have traditionally supported students. Fortunately, some people are full of creativity when it comes to getting by. VICE spoke to three students who found alternative sources of income, some more legal than others.

Cécile*, 27, archeology student. Sells her used underwear online.

VICE: Hi Cecile. What was your former student job?
I used to be a salesperson in a boutique on the French Riviera.

Did you already have a backup plan in mind when you lost your job?
I had already started my underwear business before that since I wasn’t earning enough as a salesperson. Initially it was more of an interest on the side than a necessity, but that changed when I lost my permanent job while studying.

How did you come up with the idea?
Eight years ago, I came across a website selling underwear that had been worn by an influencer I was following at the time. I wasn't a student then, but I started selling my items via the site, too. It was partly for fun, and also for a bit of extra cash, without any of the risks of [in-person forms of] sex work.

What are the biggest challenges of the job?
What I hadn't anticipated was the massive amount of time each sale takes, making the videos, taking the photos and so on. Guys like to get to know the girls they order underwear from. So bonding with the buyer is the most time-consuming and important task in this business. You personalise their orders according to their wishes and maintain a good relationship. This is what keeps them loyal and gets you good reviews which in turn attract new potential buyers.


And from a more personal point of view?
It takes up a lot of space in my private life. I had a boyfriend when I first sold underwear before the pandemic and he wasn't totally OK with it. So I gave up on it for a few years. Now, there are so many people using similar platforms. It takes a lot to promote yourself – you have to publish a lot of photos, otherwise you’ll be invisible to buyers.

Was the business a success from the start?
The site is geared to promote girls who have just signed up, so it worked straight away. In fact, I had to put in less effort to be visible earlier on compared to more recently. I also think a lot of buyers like the "freshness” of new girls.

Do you plan to continue doing this after the pandemic?
Yes, because you have a lot of freedom, compared to other jobs. What matters most to me is that I am free to move while maintaining a relatively steady income. I also enjoy it so I want to grow [my business] even more.

Lucile*, 24, photography student. Sells cigarettes and alcohol after the curfew

VICE: Hi Lucile, what were you doing for work before the pandemic?
I was in the restaurant business, for like five years.

How did you react when you lost your job?
Honestly, at first I thought [the pandemic] wouldn't last, so I dug into my savings to pay for rent, my groceries, gas and my weed. But as time went by and nothing changed, I started to really panic. I was wasting the money I had saved up to invest in equipment for my future photography projects. 

I decided to move back with my parents. That was a pretty big blow to me. Losing my independence at 24… I wasn't prepared for it.


Fortunately, you found a back-up plan. How did that happen?
To be honest, I'm not a very resourceful person. I was looking for something easy where I wouldn’t have to move around too much. So at first, I created an OnlyFans account for my feet, but it didn't work. It really annoyed me that no one was buying the pictures of my feet! I even considered dealing, but it's risky. I had to find a less dangerous and a more or less legal solution.

So how did you come up with this idea?
I remember the exact time and day I made the decision. I was at a friend's house and we were slumped on the couch, trying to comfort ourselves about the fact that we were dropping out of school and unemployed. We were watching the news on TV and just for a laugh I said to him, "Let's do the intellectual thing and debate the new restrictions." 

When the new rules were announced, my mate said, "What am I going to do when I run out of rolling papers or tobacco?" That's when it clicked. I was like, “I have a car and some money. I can deliver whatever an off license normally sorts you out with”. The next day, my friend and I went to the supermarket [to stock up]. 


How do you run your business?
I created an Instagram page and a Snapchat account and I simply asked people around me to share both in a story without specifying that it was me. Word of mouth did the rest.

It went crazy. Every weekend I was contacted by party-goers who weren’t following the rules.

What are the challenges?
Avoiding the police, because I take orders from 8pm to 6am without having an authorisation document [signed by an employer].

Do you plan to try and continue selling these sorts of things after the pandemic, when the curfew is no longer in place?
Maybe once in a while for my loyal customers, but it’s not a reliable source of income. Also, I intend to start studying again so I am going to have to sleep at night in order to focus.

Aristo, 24, e-business student. Launched a sneaker-cleaning start-up

VICE: Hi Aristo, what were you doing before the pandemic?
I worked at Action [a discount store similar to pound shops]. It wasn’t considered an essential store, so I was out of work for an indefinite period. I saw my job coming to a halt and realised I was in deep trouble.

Where did you get the idea to launch a start-up?
My brother came up with the concept. My brother, my cousin and I have always wanted to launch a project together. We figured that since not everyone can afford new shoes when they’re damaged or dirty, we’d try to give their existing pair a second life. It was also an eco-friendly plan – we showed people that overconsumption can be avoided, that things can be repaired instead of being thrown away. 

How did you get your name out there?
We staked our bets on social media and we even managed to get ourselves a small article in the paper. Within the first month, it totally took off. We were very proud of ourselves.

Do you plan to continue with this after the pandemic?
Yes, we would like to be able to expand.

Can you do it full-time?
Currently, I don't think that's possible.

Were you able to use your studies in the process?
A little. I study e-business, so I manage the communications side of things. But I also learned a lot on my own by looking at marketing strategies and studying business plans. You have to not be afraid of making mistakes to be successful.

*Names changed for privacy reasons.