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From the editor’s desk: Student roles need proper compensation, support

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By Christina Tan     11/19/19 10:02pm

Every year, 33 students sacrifice 10 months to plan Orientation Week, a pivotal institution of Rice. Assuming an O-Week coordinator puts in 20 hours of work a week and qualifies for the maximum stipend allowed ($2,500), they would be making a meager $3.13 an hour to help pull off one of the university’s most advertised, unique programs.

Often sold as “student autonomy,” the labor that Rice students perform for their community is underappreciated, undersupported and often unpaid. Certainly, Rice students benefit greatly from the ability to direct and plan many aspects of their culture and community. But intangible benefits such as a brief resume line or “leadership development” are often not enough to incentivize truly inclusive leadership on campus, and often don’t come close to sufficiently compensating for the value this work adds to the university. Financial support and autonomy are not mutually exclusive, and it’s time we begin to reallocate resources accordingly. We can’t denounce unpaid internships and in the same breath, continue to perpetuate the inequalities that exist on our own campus.

One of the most-talked about aspects of unpaid student labor is the insidious barrier to entry that it creates. Low-income students, for example, have far less ability to participate in unpaid activities, as their time could instead be spent working for pay. This creates a cycle where privileged students are the ones most able to participate in roles that can drive change, and low-income students either must be content with the status quo or sacrifice significantly to join the system. For students of marginalized groups, this labor is amplified — they are often expected to be the first to take strides toward diversity and inclusion, asked to continually educate others and make necessary improvements to Rice’s culture. This is seen most clearly in student government, where unpaid and untrained leaders in student government are often tasked with developing panaceas to a host of problems: forming inclusive communities, handling alcohol, uplifting marginalized voices, coordinating room draw and much more. 



Students in these roles often turn to staff members, who themselves are under-supported and underfunded. At the Thresher, we are extremely lucky to have Kelley Lash as our staff advisor as she is the only one on campus who can help us work through complex questions on journalism ethics. In addition to that, she assists KTRU and Campanile — just this Monday, she stayed on campus until 9:30 p.m. to help Campanile. 

And we’re the lucky ones. Programs like Students Transforming Rice Into a Violence-free Environment suffer from a lack of institutional support in areas where it’s most needed. STRIVE liaisons, unlike most faculty and staff on this campus, are not mandatory reporters, and therefore bear the burden of listening to their peers’ stories of assaults and trauma. They don’t receive additional counseling to help them deal with this aspect of their role. 

The Doerr Institute for New Leaders’ new program, which provides a stipend for students who qualify for financial aid, is a great start to addressing the issue of free labor on campus. However, much more could be done to uplift and support the efforts made on this campus. First, substantial financial support to jobs like O-Week coordinating — beyond stipends and housing, a flat hourly rate. Second, more investment into the support structures for these roles: more staff hired and with higher compensation. And third, recognizing blind spots that exist and filling in those gaps: increasing institutional support for programs that have none by hiring dedicated staffers to assist students who take on these invisible burdens. 

It is not impossible to provide these resources on campus. Through strategic financial and capital investments, Rice should begin properly compensating the structures that provide so much intrinsic value to our campus. Our endowment is $6.3 billion. It’s time to give some of that back to the people who make Rice run. 



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