College must begin paying student residential life staff

By ANNA TUPPER-BRIDGES ’14 

Head Copy Editor

Every year I’ve been at Wellesley, the Student Leadership Stipend has been on the College Government ballot, and every year I am reminded that there is a group of employees that the College does not pay. This is what the stipend does — it uses College Government money at the discretion of students to pay Resident Assistants (RAs), House Presidents (HPs) and College Government Cabinet members. Wellesley reserves $11,000, or two percent of the student activity fee, each year for students to use at their discretion. Student initiatives compete for this money, and students vote for the initiatives during College Government elections. For the past three years, the Student Leadership Stipend has won this money and has used it to pay RAs, HPs, and College Government Cabinet members who are eligible for financial aid. It is time for the College to begin paying these employees.

Wellesley’s residential life team is comprised of RAs, HPs, College Government representatives, Academic Peer Tutors, First Year Mentors and Resident Managers. I think that the College should consider paying students in all of these positions, but in this article, I will only address RAs and HPs.

There are numerous reasons to begin paying these student leaders immediately. First, most if not all of our peer institutions offer at least a stipend for these positions. Second, it would allow for a more diverse residential life staff because it would enable more students to serve in these positions who are not able to currently for financial reasons. Finally, the College should begin paying these student leaders because it is simply unethical to have unpaid workers.

Wellesley has historically never paid RAs or HPs, and this makes it one of the few liberal arts colleges in New England, possibly even the country, that does not offer any sort of compensation for these positions. At Smith College, Head Residents, who have nearly identical job descriptions to Wellesley HPs (and technically have fewer duties), receive stipends equivalent to full room and board costs. In the 2012-2013 school year, these costs at Smith totaled $13,860.

Smith’s House Community Advisors, which are similar to RAs, receive a lesser stipend of around $3,000. At Barnard College, Resident Counselors, essentially RAs, receive free housing. At Bryn Mawr, Hall Advisors, again similar to RAs, receive a minimum stipend of $2,000. This holds true outside other Seven Sisters schools as well. Bates College awards Residence Coordinators stipends of about $2,300. Middlebury’s RAs receive anywhere from $1,650 to $2,350. Clearly, Wellesley is outside the norm in providing no compensation for RAs.

Kaley Haskell ’14, acting chair of the Student Leadership Stipend committee, House Presidents’ Council President, and Severance HP, said that not paying student leaders makes it impossible for some students on financial aid to serve in these positions.

“For the amount of work that you put into it, not getting compensated can be absolutely ridiculous … it’s essentially not open to everybody, given that some people absolutely need to be able to work,” she said.

Many students need to do work-study in order to pay for tuition and other expenses, either through federal work-study or Wellesley work-study. According to the 2013 Enrolled Student Survey, approximately 64 percent of Wellesley students work during the year. In a Wellesley News article earlier this year, Director of Student Financial Services Scott Juedes said that at least 960 students, or about 40 percent of the student body, earned money through the work-study program. It is difficult for students who must also work to then essentially work another job, for which they are not paid, as RAs or HPs.

“The time commitment is … anywhere from five to twenty [hours] as an HP. That’s the same as working a part time job. You could spend that time working at Boloco to get paid,” said Tyler Duerson ’16, RA in Bates and secretary of the Student Leadership Stipend committee. Paying people in these positions would open up these leadership positions to students who are not able to work for free.

Kendra Waters ’15, who has worked as an RA in Munger for two years, knew when she got to Wellesley that she wanted to be a part of the residence staff. However, the fact that RAs are not paid means that she has a work-study job as a head lifeguard in addition to her RA position.

“Being on work-study requires sacrifices … there are times when I wish I could give more to res staff but I have to spend time instead on my work-study job that I get paid for,” she said. She also noted that she was fortunate that she is able to make it work: “I know other people who want to apply to be RAs but they can’t because they have to do work-study jobs.”

Besides trying to make these positions more equitable and open to everybody, the College should pay these student leaders because it is unethical not to do so. RAs and HPs provide a valuable service to the College — they are leaders, mentors and live-in confidants for students. According to Haskell, they help students deal with a whole host of problems, from fixing televisions in dorm common rooms to helping students who are victims of sexual assault.

A common argument I’ve heard from friends and those who oppose paying RAs and HPs is that “they don’t do enough to deserve to be paid.” This is simply untrue. Average students do not see all the behind the scenes work that RAs and HPs do, including weekly staff meetings, trainings and dealing with individual students’ problems. Caitlin Bailey ’16, an RA in Beebe, explained this, saying, “people think being an RA is about connecting with the residents, which it is, but part of the job is working with the RD and working on problems that people aren’t supposed to know about.”

Everyone I interviewed acknowledges that the nature of the Wellesley community does not require RAs to do frequent bathroom checks or be on duty, as RAs do at some other schools. “I definitely understand the argument that res life at other institutions have different, in some respects, responsibilities … Because we live on a campus with the honor code, we have quite a bit of privilege being res staff here,” said Suzanne Barth ’16, current RA in Severance, next year’s HP of Severance and the incoming chair of the SLS committee.

However, everyone I spoke to also said that they believe many current RAs and HPs would be willing to take on some extra duties if it meant they could receive compensation.

“Of the ones I’ve talked to about this issue, most of them would be willing to adjust their position in whatever kind of way” to allow for compensation, Haskell said. Barth agreed, “There is room for the role of the RA and HP to evolve in order to allow compensation. I think that the lack of compensation shouldn’t be a hindrance on the evolution of the role.”

Another common argument against compensating RAs and HPs is that it is a service position, and paying them would make it so that people would only do it for the money, which would devalue the position. This logic is flawed for two reasons. First, it cannot be applied to work in general — in the workforce, people are not told that they shouldn’t get paid because then they would just be working for money rather than the personal fulfillment of working. That is not how the world works. As previously established, RAs and HPs do work and are generally willing to do more work if it means they will be paid.

This logic is also flawed because it fails to recognize that compensation would actually increase competition for RA and HP positions. “I think it would foster competition within these [applications], and we would get even stronger leaders who are more passionate because we need to fight harder for these positions,” Haskell said, since stakes would be higher with compensation. Not only would the applicant pool increase with compensation, but the amount of time RAs could spend on the position would increase because they may not need to have an additional work-study job. “I feel like I could do such a better job if I had more time to put into it,” Waters said.

It is unclear why RAs and HPs continue to be unpaid. President Kim Bottomly has expressed the opinion that they should receive a stipend, and according to Haskell, the professional residence life staff also strongly supports this. Duerson suggests that perhaps it is simply because RAs and HPs have never been paid.

“In my experience … there’s a lot of reluctance to change. Don’t question the way it works; don’t change,” she said.

It is time for these student employees to be paid, even if the process is incremental. Haskell and the rest of the committee for SLS recognize that the budget is “fluid” right now, especially considering the work being done for the Campus Renewal program.

“It can happen in steps [with a stipend that] could put a dent for people who need to pay for tuition, who need to pay for books,” Haskell said.

Barth thinks that this process needs to begin with  dialogue with the administration because “there’s no easy answer to this question. I can’t just sit here and demand compensation for room and board without a dialogue.” She encourages all students, not just those who are part of residence life, to get involved with the Student Leadership Stipend Committee. “I plan to lead a very active committee next year,” she said. “I want everyone on campus to have a chance to be involved in these discussions.” Duerson encourages students to write letters to the Board of Trustees, various members of the administration and people in the alumnae network.

The College does not necessarily need to immediately begin paying full room and board for these student leaders. There is obviously a significant amount of discussion and negotiation that needs to happen. But the College should begin to at least address this issue incrementally.

1 Comment

  • Linnea says:

    If everything is still the same as when I graduated two years ago, APTs do indeed receive a stipend every semester.

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