Working at Swat, Part II: The Work-Study Dilemma

This article is part of a two-part series on student labor at Swarthmore. You can find the first article, which was published in the Sept. 13 edition of The Phoenix, here

On September 7, Twan Sia ’21 posted a typical lost-and-found bulletin in the Swarthmore 2018-2019 Facebook group: “Hey y’all I just lost my wallet :(( … Responds to the name hammy and i would like him back [sic].” Shortly afterward, he updated his post.

“Update: I’m a sophomore who is working 5 campus jobs (35-40 hours per week) in order to pay tuition. This morning I withdrew most of the money from my bank account to mail home to my mother, who is struggling to pay bills. I found my wallet, but several big bills are missing. If you took that money from my wallet, I want you to know that if this situation is unresolved, your actions will be felt by both me and my mother. I won’t be upset if you just return the cash. You are better than this.”

In the last 50 years, working one’s way through college has gone from an American ideal to an impossibility, The Atlantic reported in 2014. Though some colleges assert that the expected family contribution has not changed with rising costs, many struggle to pay tuition nonetheless. Sia’s post comes at a time when students on campus are grappling with the experience of being a student worker at the college: the United Undergraduate Workers of Swarthmore began publicizing their intention to begin a unionization drive in late August through Facebook, their website, and Voices.

“Beyond unfair pay … undergraduate workers face many different issues specific to their workplaces, from unjust firing practices and unpaid training to uncounted hours. Uniting ourselves allows us to respond to these issues, including fair pay for all student work … An organized group of undergraduate workers can respond to workers’ needs in ways that no individual worker can alone,” the group wrote in a Voices post on Aug. 30.

During their mass training on Sept. 8, the group also expressed frustration at rising costs of tuition.

“It’s especially infuriating that Swarthmore has continued to pay the same wages, so wages have remained stagnant while tuition prices have hiked … in the past few years,” said Jissel Becerra ’20, a founding member of UUWS.

Colleges often include Federal Work-Study in financial aid packages, which is essentially a placeholder for earnings the student will make in a part-time, on-campus job. The student can use these funds however they choose, and if they don’t earn the amount allocated in the FWS grant, the school does not make up the difference. Though the college does adjust wages every few years — this year’s highest pay grade is $0.21 higher than last year’s — some students are dissatisfied with their compensation, such as Amal Haddad ’22, a work-aided student from Silver Spring, Maryland.

“[To] freshmen, Swarthmore says, ‘We strongly recommend that you do not work more than 7-8 hours a week,’” she said. “I am used to working much more than that during high school and what Swarthmore pays is less than my county minimum wage is — my county minimum wage is $11.50. So Swarthmore’s telling me to work less hours for less money.”

Anna Garner ’19, who worked retail during the summer after her first year, said that she is satisfied with the school’s wages, but feels that there is a lack of resources for work-study students.

“I made $7.50 an hour working at a clothing store and I didn’t have time to be able to do my work or read a book or just answer emails. And for that I’m really grateful that Swarthmore has accelerated wages and gives you jobs that allow you to do your [homework],” she said. “But my biggest issue has not been the wages but on making sure that there are enough jobs and enough access for jobs for students on work-study.”

In a poll of 67 students sent out by the Phoenix on Sept. 17, 31.3 percent of respondents answered that they were unsatisfied with opportunities for employment at the college. JobX, an online job-posting and job application site that the school inaugurated last spring, was designed to facilitate this access for work-study students.

“We are committed to providing Swarthmore students, especially work-aided students, with meaningful employment opportunities that enhance their experiences on campus and in the classroom,” Interim Vice President for Communications Alisa Giardinelli wrote in an email to The Phoenix.  “We believe the opportunities we offer are fair, consistent, and enriching to the overall Swarthmore experience. The implementation of the JobX system is a part of our commitment to meeting the needs of our students.”

According to Director of Institutional Research Robin Shores, 45 percent of students at the college between 2014 and 2016 received work-study grants. However, only 80 percent of work-aided students were employed by the college. Furthermore, both work-aided and non-work-aided students on the payroll — around 925 students each semester — worked 5.5 hours per week in 2014-2016. This is a far reach from the average of 12.26 hours per week at the highest pay grade ($10.19/hr) they would have had to work in order to generate the roughly $2000 per semester allotted for a work-study grant.

And as in Sia’s case, working more than 5.5 hours per week also often necessitates taking on multiple jobs. In addition to being a PSRF fellow, an I.C. intern, a peer tutor and a research assistant, Sia is also enrolled in 4.5 credits.

“I think the only reason why I’m working so much is because, I just, my parents are going through a really difficult time, one of my sisters decided to go back to school, my financial aid package dropped with the tuition increase,” he said. “From the beginning, I’ve been helping to support my parents, since I’ve been in college. But now that everything’s gone, it’s so much worse this semester, I’ve just had to work so much more than I normally would. It’s definitely annoying when people are like ‘Oh, why are you doing all that?’ It’s not by choice that I’m doing everything I’m doing.”

Yet despite the fact that he struggles with balancing all of his jobs, Sia is hesitant to advocate for higher wages.

“Obviously, getting paid more appeals to me. But you have to think about how sustainable that would be for the college. I know everyone says, ‘Oh, we have such a big endowment, why can’t we afford to pay everyone a few more dollars,’ but I don’t think that from the school’s perspective … [that it makes] any sense. I would rather that they give the ability to work to more people than just afford to pay a couple well.”

Some members of UUWS, including Matt Koucky ’22, feel that what they see as unfair wages carry not only economic implications but social implications as well.

“I think the story about college is [that] it’s just this place that people go to because people are waiting to be in the real world,” Koucky said.

“For some people, maybe college is the transitory step to the real world, or this just feels like another phase of schooling, but for a lot of lower-income and underrepresented students at Swarthmore, college is this sacrifice and necessity to stake a place in the ‘real world’ and to know that they will have a living wage when they leave here and to know that they will have social mobility,” Haddad added. “So this is the real world already for a lot of students.”

For Sia, he made this tradeoff in choosing to attend the college after briefly living on his own and working after high school.

“For me, my parents wanted me to go straight into the workforce after college. I’m here of my own accord,” he said. “Even if they were completely capable of paying … which they’re not, they won’t. The college isn’t necessarily understanding of that.”

Complicating matters is that for some students, on-campus jobs are their only opportunity for employment. Renn Tan ’20 is a work-aided international student from Malaysia who works anywhere between six and 40 hours a week at a variety of jobs, including several at the Lang Performing Arts Center.

“The thing is that, as an international student, I’m not legally allowed to work off campus. Unless they pay me in cash and don’t mention it, which I mean, how many employers are willing to do that?” Tan said.

Though Tan is satisfied with their jobs, they recalled comparing their wages to a recent graduate who had been hired back by the college to do the same job as Tan.

“They got something closer to $15 per hour. I don’t think students should get paid the same amount necessarily because, no matter what, we’re students, they’re working adults, but something a little more in the middle … between those two… Yes, please, pay us more,” they said.

Wages are not the only core issue that UUWS’s members have discussed. Initial UUWS messaging focused specifically on the Writing Associates  program at the college, as both Jissel Becerra ’20 and Will Marchese ’20 are currently WAs in training and came up with the idea of starting a union when they were hired.

During their first semester, WAs must take a pass/fail seminar, “Writing Pedagogy,” which includes working one-on-one with four to five students to edit multiple drafts of their course papers throughout the semester. This is considered the course’s lab practicum. They also work one to three  shifts in the Writing Center, for which they are paid hourly. The following semester, they are given a stipend of $1000 for their work tutoring twice as many students.

“As a low-income student facing the many hidden and unexpected costs of a college education, having more than one job on campus is essentially mandatory for me. So I couldn’t help but be shocked and frustrated when I learned that, as a Writer’s Associate, I would have to undergo an entire semester’s worth of job training without financial compensation,” Becerra said in a video posted by UUWS on Aug. 17.

In an indirect response to these concerns, Associate Professor Jill Gladstein, director of the writing program, and Associate Professor Alba Newmann Holmes, associate director of the writing program, addressed these and similar concerns in an email sent out to all current WAs on Sept. 2. The email quoted from a proposal that a group of faculty members created in 2008 in response to dissent over WA compensation at that time.

In teaching our students how to teach, mentor, and be mentored alongside faculty, we embody a central mission of the college: promoting ethical intelligence,” the proposal stated. “Given the educational mission of this program, and the ongoing in-service education of the Writing Associates, we recommend the College explicitly consider the Writing Associates as ‘Fellows’ who are awarded Writing Associate Fellowships for their participation in this program.”

Another WA, who wished not to be named, feels that the classifying WAs as fellows rather than as employees is unfair to students.

My experience working as a WA has been rewarding, yet there are several notable aspects of the Program’s agenda and direction that I feel are inadequate and unfair. As a disabled student on financial aid, I am both incredibly disappointed in and still affected by the WA program’s failure to compensate students for an entire semester of training which includes both a required course and work outside of the classroom… [WAs] deserve not only to be paid for all of the work that we do, but also to be treated as real workers in general,” they said.

Students are often expected to learn on the job, or to learn from the job. Whether the role of employee can be separated from the status of student is up to interpretation.

“In essence, I don’t want to be complaining about my work, because I genuinely care about everything I’m doing,” Sia said. “I care about sustainability, I care about research, I love teaching, I love working in the I.C. I love my jobs, it’s just that I wish I didn’t have to work all of them. It’s a weird balance of ‘I’m grateful but also it’s killing me.’”

Katie Pruitt ’20 contributed reporting to this article.

Bayliss Wagner

Bayliss '21 is from Vienna, VA. She is majoring in English literature and minoring in computer science and French.

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