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Underpaid, overworked: Students speak out about challenges in leadership positions

studentworkers-tinaliu
Illustrated by Tina Liu

By Ella Feldman     9/15/20 10:59pm

On a sweltering day in August, groups of students across campus braced themselves for the daunting task ahead of them: spending hours helping new students move into their dorms. Move-in day kicks off Orientation Week every year, and nearly all Rice students are familiar with the ritual of sweaty, beaming advisors running back and forth with labeled cardboard boxes as incoming students start exploring their new home. 

But this year, the students running O-Week faced an even greater challenge: planning a way to move in new students while masked, socially distanced and trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The administration told O-Week coordinators to devise their college’s move-in plan, according to Lillie Plaza, one of Lovett College’s O-Week coordinators. At Lovett, Plaza said they decided that the safest way to move new students in was to follow the coronavirus floor rules laid out by the administration. If an advisor was living on the same floor as a new student, they were in charge of bringing that student’s belongings to their room.



Hannah George, a Wiess College senior who co-advised at Lovett, said the Lovett move-in plan was successful. However, she said she doesn’t think it should have been up to students to devise that plan in the first place — it should have been the administration.

Kamil Cook, a Brown College junior who coordinated O-Week at his college this year, said he made multiple decisions this summer that he felt shouldn’t have been up to him.

“The whole time, I felt like we were doing work that we should not have been normally allowed to do. The decisions we were making were really important, and they were giving it to 20-year-olds who weren’t getting paid to do it,” Cook said. “We were told to be public health officials, despite the fact that we were never even given a slideshow — we weren’t even given one slide about epidemiology, or public health, or anything.”

Ishaan Rischie, who coordinated O-Week at Jones College this year, said the greatest difficulty he faced this summer was a lack of communication from the administration regarding planning. Although he said he ultimately doesn’t fault them, it made the role harder.

“This summer of planning O-Week was made a million times more difficult than it needed to be because of a number of communication breakdowns between the O-Week coordinators and administration, resulting in us feeling as though our thoughts, proposals and ideas were falling on deaf ears,” Rischie, a Jones junior, said.

According to Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman, everyone who helped plan Rice’s reopening made decisions they wouldn’t normally be having to make. That included O-Week coordinators.

“It was a hard summer. I don’t know what to say other than that,” Gorman said. “I’ve never worked this hard in my entire life. I mean never, ever have. And I feel like it was that for every person who was at Rice.”

However, this summer wasn’t the first time that student leaders at Rice have felt like they’ve done work that surpassed what should be expected of a young person serving in an unpaid role, according to the 21 student leaders the Thresher spoke to for this story. Many of them — including students behind O-Week, student government, Students Transforming Rice Into a Violence-Free Environment and diversity and inclusion efforts — said they’ve felt this way for a while.

ABOVE AND BEYOND

Back in March, when the majority of students were forced to suddenly vacate campus, it fell on a few students to do the heavy lifting, according to Johnston French and Kelly Dong. Johnston French, Sid Richardson College’s chief justice, said that he and fellow Sid students Clarise Trinh, Sarah Mozden, and Nia Prince moved boxes of Sid students’ belongings into storage, and again before students moved back in. Overall, French estimates he worked about 75 hours on moving people in and out.

Michel Achard, the college’s magister, said he arranged for those students to receive financial compensation from the college budget because he wasn’t comfortable with students doing that work for free. However, that wasn’t the case at every college.

“It sounded like something that he went out of his way to do and not something Rice as a whole was doing, though,” French, a Sid junior, said. “I’m concerned for the people who had to do move-out at other colleges.”

As facilities directors at Will Rice, Dong and Manuj Shah were placed in charge of moving Will Rice students’ belongings in and out of storage. According to Dong, a Will Rice College senior, it was a surprising amount of work and responsibility and they did not receive financial compensation.

“Coming up with a comprehensive plan was complicated considering there were so many restrictions that we had to work around without any guidance or advice from administration,” Dong said.

As chief justice of Lovett for the 2019 to 2020 academic year, Laura Yordán said she felt supported by various individuals at her college and in the administration, including her college’s core team, college president Chloe Oani and Henry Cash, who worked for Rice University Police Department for 13 years before becoming a wellbeing advisor. 

Still, she said she constantly felt stretched too thin and in charge of things that surpassed her capabilities as a college junior, such as regularly deciding whether an intoxicated student needed to receive medical attention.

“You don’t sleep at all on weekends,” Yordán, a Lovett senior, said. “I had support, but sometimes it’s just like, you do things that are way beyond your pay grade. And it’s like, I’m only 20 years old. There [are] just some things that I can’t do.”

Late nights are also a regular occurrence for STRIVE liaisons, according to Mezthly Pena, a Duncan College junior and liaison. She said it’s a full time job, most of which consists of helping survivors of sexual assault work through trauma. Although she believes the work is essential, she said it’s incredibly difficult at times.

“It’s honestly something probably a therapist should be doing, but students are doing it instead,” Pena said.

EMOTIONAL BURDENS

The most difficult part of being a STRIVE liaison, according to Mallory Newbern, is the emotional toll it can take on a student. The work can be retraumatizing for liaisons who are survivors themselves, she said.

“People are in really difficult situations, and they come to you for emotional support and you need to provide it in that moment, but then there's long-lasting effects of these conversations,” Newbern, a Martel College junior and liaison, said. “It really does take a toll on multiple different parts of your life. But it's all worth it. I really do think it's all worth it.”

Diversity and inclusion work on campus can also be retraumatizing for the Black students leading those efforts, according to Kendall Vining, a Martel College junior. In addition to serving as internal vice president for the Student Association, Vining serves on the Rice for Black Life steering committee and is a co-leader of the list of Black student demands published this summer. It was especially difficult to do this work in the face of this summer’s events.

“It’s hard, because while Black students should be at the front of making these changes, our racial traumas and hurt [are] reopened with every news we hear of another Black person shot,” Vining said. “When you are faced with so little support from administration and Rice in general that you literally feel the need to create an outside organization — Rice for Black Life — to get anything accomplished, that says a lot right there.”

Soha Rizvi and Jiya Ghei, two of this year’s diversity facilitators, said that the work diversity facilitators do can take a similar emotional toll, especially on Black facilitators. Although Rizvi and Ghei both said they were passionate about the role and ultimately enjoyed it, they said they did not feel like the administration supported them. 

“Part of our role is dealing with some students, particularly new students, who hold little respect for our goals and sometimes even our identities. That has been an emotional burden I didn’t expect, so I can’t imagine the experience of the [Black, Indigenous, and people of color diversity facilitators],” Rizvi, a Hanszen College junior, said. “We definitely don’t get the compensation or administrative support that we deserve considering we do the grunt work of implementing Rice’s professed values of diversity and inclusion.”

According to Gorman, the administration has been devoting a lot of time and effort to responding to this summer’s events and making Rice a more anti-racist institution. She pointed to the five specific actions President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches announced in an email to the Rice community on June 16. The actions included establishing the new positions of Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Scholar in Residence for Racial Justice, designing a course on diversity and cultural understanding that will be required for new students starting in 2021, and creating two funds — one to to support non-partisan student engagement in Houston on issues of racial equity and justice and another to support faculty doing research on race and anti-racism.

“The murder of George Floyd was an incredibly upsetting one, I think for everybody. The students, faculty, staff, the entirety of the Rice community. It’s been heartening to see students’ reaction to that across the board,” Gorman said. “I’m sorry if some [diversity facilitators] felt like we weren’t engaged and we weren’t caring about this. I think we very much were.” 

Leslie Loredo said she came out of coordinating O-Week for Jones College in 2019 exhausted, disillusioned with Rice and with damaged relationships at her college. Although she said she doesn’t regret coordinating, she said those feelings are common for coordinators, and that the administration doesn’t do enough to help former coordinators get through the burnout they may face after O-Week.

“The administration is putting the weight of their biggest, most important event on you, without helping you carry it,” Loredo, a Jones College senior, said.

This year, Loredo returned to Jones College O-Week as an advisor. She said she wanted to be there to support the 2020 coordinators, as she could sympathize with some of what they were going through. She was frustrated to see how much work the coordinators were doing, and she thinks some of it — such as their roles as enforcers of social distancing — should have been taken on more by the administration.

“It sucks because it’s like, as a student, I have to help these other students because I know the administration’s not going to be there for them,” Loredo said. “And so I’m having to step up and be like … please let me help you, because I know they’re not going to.”

Gorman said she has no reason to think that O-Week coordinators aren’t being emotionally supported, and said that Araceli Lopez, who leads First Year Programs, does much of that work.

“I know she cares about them a great deal. And I know that she doesn’t hesitate to reach out if she feels like there’s a coordinator that’s struggling,” Gorman said. “If we have coordinators who felt that emotionally they weren’t getting their needs met, then I am sorry about that.”

Loredo said she greatly appreciates the work that Lopez does, but that ultimately, the emotional burdens O-Week coordinators face are too heavy to put on one person.

EXPECTATIONS VERSUS REALITY

When Angelica Torres became McMurtry’s chief justice in March, she had no idea what she was signing up for. Due to the unforeseen severity of the pandemic, this was the case for students across campus who assumed leadership roles for the 2020 to 2021 school year.

“People look to me now for information and rules about how to interact in a COVID world, but I have never received any training to do so," Torres said. "I am also left out of the Rice decision making, so I can't even give up to date information to the students who are asking me for it.”

According to George, who was a diversity facilitator, the work that facilitators did this summer similarly surpassed what they were initially expected to do. She said that diversity facilitators carried the entire burden of talking to new students about the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black victims of police brutality and racist violence. 

“[The increased workload] was because of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer, and Rice for Black Lives, and the need for the administration to be like, ‘Oh, we did something,’” George said. “Except the administration didn't do anything. They said that you as students and you as diversity facilitators need to do the work.”

Although the events of this year may have exacerbated them, disparities between what students expect when they sign up for a leadership role and what they end up doing are not new, according to a number of students interviewed.

Milkessa Gaga, who co-led the Black student demands with Vining, said that Black students often end up doing far more activism than they ever expected to do in college.

“I don't think any of us really come into college or Rice thinking that we want to be student activists or whatever. We're just regular people that want to go to school,” Gaga, a Martel College junior, said. “But we happen to be in this position where like, I got to do this if I want to improve my experiences and the experiences of others.”

Torres said her experience as chief justice this year speaks to a larger problem of expectations versus reality at Rice. 

“In some ways, the Culture of Care can be used to guilt students into providing services for free,” she said.

Gorman said she believes that although Rice does a lot to support student leaders, nothing can fully prepare them for some of the things they’ll face in their roles. 

“I don't think there's any way we can perfectly prepare anybody, because I just don't think it's possible,” she said. “If there's anything I've learned in life, it’s that you don't totally understand a role until you're in it.”

TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY

In 2019, the Dean of Undergraduate’s Office created a need-based stipend program for O-Week coordinators. Students were able to indicate on their application if they needed funding to be able to stay at Rice over the summer as O-Week coordinators. Prior to the stipends, which range from $500 to $2,500, coordinators received no summer compensation other than eight meals per week and on-campus housing from June 1 until advisor training and O-Week.

“We realized that some students weren’t able to come and apply to be O-Week coordinators in the summer because [the position was unpaid]. That was really depressing their ability to do that, so we put together the need-based stipend program,” Gorman said. “By every measure that I’ve seen, we did meet their financial needs over [this] summer.”

However, some former O-Week coordinators said they aren’t fully satisfied with the stipend, although it’s a step in the right direction. Former coordinators Loredo, Cook, as well as Aurora Kesler, who coordinated Brown College’s O-Week in 2019, all said they think the position should be paid.

“I want to see O-Week coords be paid. I don’t care if people think it’ll diminish the value of the position, if it’ll make it seem like you’re just doing it to get paid. No one does this just to get paid,” Loredo said. “You could go work somewhere for the summer where you wouldn’t have to do as much emotional or mental labor. It’s not about that. It’s about your dedication.”

Max Boekelmann, a Jones College senior who coordinated in 2019, said coordinators are still facing financial barriers to the role.

“It is a lot to ask of students to give up the opportunity to earn money and instead volunteer their summer,” Boekelmann said. “Every year, a person’s love for O-Week and love for their college is pushed to the front to hide the fact that by choosing to coordinate O-Week you are committing hours upon hours without getting paid. I do love Jones College, but that did not make those hours any less difficult.”

Maddy Scannell, executive director of STRIVE, said she wants to see the university financially compensate liaisons.

“On an ethical level, liaisons are doing work for the university — that the university tends to exploit in its communications about Title IX and sexual misconduct. Labor ought to be compensated,” Scannell, a Martel College senior, said. “Financial support for liaisons would make this role more accessible, allowing us to diversify our liaisons and better serve the Rice community.”

Varsha Varghese, a Baker College senior, said she had a fairly manageable year as Baker’s chief justice from 2019 to 2020, thanks to support from students and the A-Team. However, she said that when she tells her friends from home about her role, they ask her if she was a residential associate. 

“At other universities, the role of a RA is basically what the CJ does, except they get paid for it,” Varghese said.

However, some students are not sure if the answer to these concerns lies in financial compensation. Tim Thomas, who served as Wiess College president from 2019 to 2020, said that the immense workloads and emotional tolls placed on student leaders should be reexamined before the pay situation.

“If [the administration] is not going to try to improve the general quality of life, then I think pay needs to become a factor,” Thomas, a Wiess College senior, said. “In order for it not to be, I think there just needs to be a better support system.”

Matthew Burns, a Lovett College senior and former O-Week coordinator, said that although he initially wanted coordinators to receive compensation, he learned that this would mean they would have to be treated like employees, which was something he had not considered.

“This means less forgiveness on missed deadlines, less freedom and more control in the hands of the admin,” Burns said. “A lot of the creative freedom we have in planning our O-Week comes from the fact that we are volunteers.”

Wanting to avoid such an employer-employee relationship between students and the administration is a major reason why the administration has resisted compensating student leaders in the past, according to Gorman. To her, student leadership roles are opportunities for service and experiential learning, not jobs. She also pointed out that colleges have a budget, which they could use to compensate certain students.

According to Associate Provost Matt Taylor, who has worked closely with student leaders at Rice for decades, students have a lot of autonomy in determining what a particular role entails. Taylor said that in various instances over the years, student leaders have resisted the idea of financial compensation, but have clung to their many responsibilities.

“I think it’s extremely valuable to be in partnership with student leaders, figuring out how best to shape a student experience that’s rewarding and educational and challenging and the best in the country,” Taylor said. “But those roles don’t have to be roles that eat up a ton of time and create a burden in a way that students feel like they should be compensated because it takes so much of their time.”

Kesler, a Brown College senior who coordinated O-Week in 2019, said she’s observed that in recent years, the lack of standardized compensation and the immense workload student leaders face has been more and more discouraging to students. In particular, she said she’s seen a decline in quality of O-Weeks, and predicts that sooner or later, the administration won’t have a choice but to pay coordinators, because otherwise, people won’t apply for the job. Alternatively, Kesler said that a student leader strike would move the conversation about pay forward. She said she’d like to see one.

“O-Week coordinators right now, all that’s left in their job is to turn in the coordinators for next week. But they have no obligation to do that. Don’t do it,” Kesler said. “Coordinators should refuse to continue participating as part of this university and as wards of the institution until the university starts listening and actually caring about the things students are saying, and actually taking it seriously. Right now, we’re not even at the negotiating table.”

Student Association President and Martel College senior Anna Margaret Clyburn said she firmly believes that student leaders need more support. Part of the solution, she said, may lie in supporting existing offices that help student leaders, such as the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Student Success initiatives, and hiring more staff to fill them. It could also lie in making certain leadership positions paid, she said. Regardless, she said the administration needs to start working on a solution to the concerns of student leaders by doing one thing: listening.

“Paying student leaders will not solve all of our problems, and neither will hiring more staff,” Clyburn said. “But taking both seriously and listening to students and staff when they voice their frustrations, their concerns, and their exhaustion is a start.”



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