One day last fall, clinical psychology student Chatam Miracle found himself caught in a downpour on an open field. Wearing a toga.
"I was exhausted and soaking wet, and I was thinking: I am in the world of academia. What am I doing here?" recalls Miracle, who is in his first year of graduate school at the University of Dayton.
What Miracle was doing was funding his education, albeit in an unusual way. For two months in the fall, he and two friends don togas every weekend and head to the Ohio Renaissance Festival. There, they get paid to roam the streets, mock passers-by through improvised songs and lure crowds for their stage shows.
In doing this, Miracle is bucking a trend. While most psychology graduate students offset loans through research and teaching assistantships, students like Miracle pad their grad funding away from the ivory tower. In addition to paying the bills, performing arts and creative writing give them a needed break from academia-and sometimes enrich these grad students' education in surprising ways.
When University of Virginia clinical psychology student Jane Mendle needed summer funding, she tapped her experience working at a publishing house and her flair for writing to compose "chick lit."
"If I couldn't write something better than what was being sold, I knew I could write something that was just as bad," says Mendle.
So she penned the first 80 pages of a novel about a film student who casts a soap opera star in her master's thesis: a feature film. In the grad-school equivalent of a bodice-ripper, the two trade witty remarks and steamy glances throughout filming-though conflicts over the movie's direction threaten their romance.
As a first-year graduate student, Mendle submitted the manuscript to HarperCollins, which gave her an advance to finish the story.
The novel, "Kissing in Technicolor," (HarperCollins, 2004) won glowing reviews from Seventeen Magazine, Cosmopolitan and Entertainment Weekly.
The first-time novelist, however, didn't trumpet her success to her classmates. In fact, Mendle says she felt a little embarrassed by her side job.
"I didn't want people in my graduate program to think that I wasn't dedicated to the program," she says.
"I thought people would look down on me, but at the end of the day, everyone thought it was cool and fun."
Thanks to her first novel-and two forthcoming young adult titles commissioned by St. Martin's Press-Mendle was able to afford housing in New York while in her internship year.
Fellow moonlighter Matthew Jarman, an organizational behavior and MBA student at Claremont Graduate University, has also transformed an unusual talent into grad school funding. He's performed as a professional magician since age 16-starting with card tricks at birthday parties. Jarman has since moved up to working corporate parties and cocktail hours.
His specialty is "close-up magic," small-scale tricks often involving cards, coins and rope.
"I literally walk around from group to group and show each group a little bit of magic," Jarman says.
In addition to earning textbook money, Jarman has parlayed his talent into nine free vacations at Club Med resorts, where he wows vacationers at cocktail hours in exchange for room and board. But while the umbrella-festooned drinks are nice, Jarman says that he's driven by his love of performing.
"I almost always can be found with a deck of cards," he says. "It's rare that you get to do something where you consistently are able to make people happy."
Off-campus, off-the-beaten-path jobs can also offer students valuable training in public speaking and quick thinking. For example, Miracle had to think fast when a recent performance of his group, "Toga Party Improv Catastrophe," was interrupted by a woman who climbed up onto the stage and chased Miracle around mid-song. He worked it into the performance, and onlookers thought she was part of the show.
Miracle, who claims to be shy and introverted, says that improv comedy has given him the confidence to pursue a career as a therapist.
"I definitely feel like I have a leg up in my clinical interviewing class," he says. "I have eight years' experience thinking on my feet...and controlling my nerves."
Fifth-year counseling psychology student Sheena Walker-who sings backup and plays violin in a reggae band-has also found that her night job cross-pollinates with psychology.
Walker, who is completing her internship at Vanderbilt University this year, often works with young black men who have trouble putting their emotions into words. However, many are able to identify songs and lyrics that echo how they feel, Walker has found. So she invites them to bring CDs into therapy.
"For African-American men, therapy can be an uncomfortable place," says Walker. "Familiar songs can help them find their voice."
Walker has been able to find her voice through lyrics as well, and some of her favorites are from a song she sings with her band, Cobalt Blue:
When you see me coming up
I ain’t doing nothing
When you see that I’m blessed
I ain’t doing nothing
When you see me rock worldwide from obscurity
I ain’t doing nothing, it’s the Most High in me.
"It's about being blessed with a talent," says Walker. "It's saying: 'Oh, it's not me [performing]. I am just serving as a vessel.'"
Walker isn't sure if she will be able to continue playing with Cobalt Blue after she graduates this year, and Miracle knows that when he goes on internship he probably won't be able to keep up his weekend gigs. But both predict that music and theater, respectively, will continue to enrich their lives.
"It doesn't matter where I go. I don't think I'll be able to stop being creative," Miracle says.