When Shelby Ripp ’22 applied to be a returning Resident Assistant in Cazenove Hall in Jan. 2020, she was not expecting the position to change much from the community-oriented role that she loved. However, COVID-19 brought the job into uncharted territory for Fall 2020. In addition to her prior responsibilities, Ripp was now responsible for enforcing community safety guidelines related to pandemic-era realities such as mask-wearing and social distancing. All this, of course, on top of her Wellesley academic course load.
“Our HPs and everyone were fighting, like, that’s not what we signed up for,” Ripp said. “You can’t ask more of us, essentially, without proper compensation.”
In a typical academic year, Wellesley Resident Assistants (RAs) and House Presidents (HPs) wear several hats including peer advising, community role modeling and emergency response. RAs and HPs help their peers during crises of varying magnitudes, from room lockouts to roommate troubles. They also work to keep residential communities safe and welcoming through formal settings such as floor programs and Community Engagement hours, as well as casual hallway conversations and consistent, friendly waves.
The current compensation rate for RAs at Wellesley College is $4,500 in total. RAs receive $1,200 off each semester’s room and board in a waiver, as well as a stipend of $2,100 paid out in four installments of $525 at different points over the year. In a similar part-waiver, part stipend model, HPs are paid a total of $6,100. Neither of these cover Wellesley room and board, which costs $9,125 for the 2020-2021 academic year. Including the meal plan, the total for a residential experience amounts to $17,772.
Helen Wang, the Director of Residential Life, maintains that she wants to make the residential staff roles as inclusive and diverse as possible. When designing the grant-stipend package, she worked closely with Student Financial Services (SFS) to ensure that students with the greatest financial needs were not going to be affected by the waiver component of the RA remuneration scheme. According to the models that SFS developed, compensation “shouldn’t be a factor” in determining whether or not students pursue residential staff roles.
However, Carson Morrissey ’23, a Resident Assistant for Shafer, said they did not realize the extent to which the role’s compensation would affect their current financial aid package. The compensation they received for being an RA was ultimately negated because the College decreased the amount of grant aid contribution they received.
“I love Wellesley, I want to be here. The fact that they see it as justified to take out money that they would be giving me for my job out of the money they would be giving me for my financial aid… It frustrates me, it saddens me, it makes me feel like my work isn’t valued in their eyes,” Morrisey said. “In fact I’m deeply, deeply opposed to it.”
Due to Wellesley’s COVID-19 Health and Safety protocols, students this year moved to campus over the course of seven days. During this year’s extended move-in timeline, RAs and HPs were asked to help out with tasks that were not explicitly stated in their contracts. For example, they were asked to move in new students on five of the designated move-in days. This meant all the usual features of move-in: checking off names, handing off keys, big smiles; plus, some new COVID-19 features: face shields, masks, gloves and lots of sanitizer.
While RAs and HPs were not required to engage in the move-in process if they felt uncomfortable doing so, the vast majority helped out. However, many did not anticipate the difficulties associated with maintaining Wellesley’s Health and Safety protocols while on-the-job.
Ade Khan ’21, HP of Cazenove Hall, spoke about some of the challenges her staff faced in relation to moving in new students’ belongings, particularly during the chaos of the first few weeks of school.
“One of my RAs was pushed genuinely to a point of exhaustion that she shouldn’t have had to go to within the first two weeks because move-in [was not] two days,” Khan said. “[Move-in] was like five days where [new students] can’t touch the bins. So we’re having to do the manual labor … and obviously, to some degree, we are exposing ourselves.”
The unexpected COVID-19 testing backlog during the move-in period also created difficulties, and RAs are often expected to step up during unforeseen circumstances in their buildings. Anisha Rao ’23, an RA in Tower Court, described having to deliver meals to her residents, who were required to stay inside their rooms until they received negative test results. Since this task was not explicitly a part of Rao’s RA contract, Rao was frustrated by the lack of oversight over the exact scope of her role this year. Since the initial period of testing has passed, Rao is no longer responsible for this task and now is shifting her attention to more traditional RA responsibilities like community-building and programming.
Earlier in the summer, many to-be RAs and HPs anticipated some of the COVID-19-related tasks that they would have to engage in during the fall, such as manual labor, excess exposure and off-the-contract emergency tasks. They articulated their concerns to the Office of Residential Life and asked for a variety of new compensation schemes in order to account for their changed role during the upcoming year. Some ideas floated included free room and board and hazard pay. Ultimately, each of their requests for increased compensation were rejected.
One HP, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was angered by the tone during some of the payment conversations. She described a certain point during the back-and-forth when a senior residential staff member explained that RAs and HPs had minimal leverage over increasing their compensation because there were many other students who would be happy to step into their places. As a result, the staff member said, Wellesley administrators in charge of allocating RA and HP compensation were not likely to revise the existing remuneration plan.
“It really pissed me off. Because I was like, you tell us that this is beyond a job … and we were hand-selected and all this, and then to immediately reduce us to replaceable employees ruins the entire Residential Life curriculum that you have put forward and indoctrinated us into by saying we’re chess pieces,” the current HP said.
Catrina Chen ’21, HP of Claflin, also felt demoralized due to the conversations on payment, though she emphasized that Helen Wang and other professional Residential Life Staff members were not to blame for the lack of the pay increase that she and her fellow RAs and HPs asked for.
Wang expressed her deep appreciation for RAs and HPs, who have adapted to the challenges of being students and workers during a pandemic year. She stated that, while she wishes that she could compensate RAs and HPs more, her hands are tied in terms of encouraging administration to commit to a yearly compensation increase.
“If they had the money and they had the power, they would give it to us in a heartbeat, and they think we deserve it,” Chen said. “It was demoralizing to find out that Residential Life is not as valued by administration and by the people who are in charge of payment.”
Ultimately, many student residential staff are frustrated with the lack of agency in working towards a high compensation model.
“[Administration] needs to understand… that we’re people and that even though we’re willing and dedicated to our community, sometimes you’re putting too much pressure on us and that we deserve to be compensated for the type of trouble that we’re being put through, especially in regards to COVID, and the anti-racism movements that are going on,” Rao said. “We are a huge part of dealing with those situations that happen on campus. And we should be treated with respect and that includes compensation.”