The student staff of the College Houses serve in one of the most visible and important support roles that exists on campus. When new students move in, residential advisors and graduate advisors are often the first authority figures they are introduced to at Penn, and for many students, these advisors remain one of the most accessible resources throughout the school year. Because these student staff positions are so important, the compensation for them should be fair, competitive, and adequate for interested students from a diverse array of economic backgrounds and financial situations.
But current College Houses & Academic Services policy does not go far enough in terms of compensation for these positions, by not providing financial compensation, adequate food, or any payment besides a dorm room. This lack of compensation can make it significantly harder for certain groups of students — such as heavily aided undergraduates — to take RA jobs. If Penn is serious about demonstrating its commitment to the on campus experience and student wellness, it needs to start by increasing compensation for RAs and GAs.
The list of responsibilities that RAs are expected to take on is long and demanding, especially given the fact that they — like the residents they serve — are students.
Duty is the one that most people think of (maybe as a result of first hand experience), and regular shifts and requirement of being “no more than five minutes … travel time [from] the residence during the entire on-duty period” are a part of the time-consuming responsibilities. Beyond that, though, RAs are expected to return to campus early and stay late at the end of the spring term (potentially cutting short or interfering with summer work opportunities), attend training, assist with move in and NSO, cultivate personal relationships with residents, and “[create] respectful and engaged communities of residents on a floor or wing.” RAs are tasked with providing “support in emergencies and times of personal stress,” and they take on a stake in the health and well-being of other students; labor that goes well beyond the nights they spend walking through residence halls.
On a practical level, these obligations eat away at the amount of time that RAs can spend on other commitments, such as other forms of work that would pay. As far as official policy goes, RAs “may not hold full time employment and serve in the Resident Advisor position.” But at a schedule of an “average of 15-20 hours per week during the school year,” RAs are being asked to push the enforced maximum of 20 hours a week that students can work during the school year. They’re expected to devote more time to work than most of the undergraduates on Penn’s payroll, and they receive no wage tied to these hours in return.
RAs at Penn do receive housing in the dorm where they work as compensation, but not a full meal plan. During my first year at Penn, seeing RAs and GAs in the Hill College House dining hall gave me the impression that they received a meal plan as part of their accommodation; I didn’t realize this meal plan was limited to “approximately three [meals] per week”, and was “not intended to meet any RA’s daily nutritional needs.”
Receiving housing as compensation also does nothing to incentivize heavily aided undergraduates who would otherwise have housing mostly or entirely subsidized to take on positions, and can actually end up being detrimental for some, as “RA/GA appointments may have a significant impact on an individual's financial aid package (i.e., grant and work study allocation)”. If compensation for RA positions isn’t at the level where Penn students from all backgrounds can feel financially incentivized to take the work on, it isn’t high enough.
Being an RA or GA undoubtedly requires sacrifice, but right now Penn is asking interested students to give up things they shouldn’t be expected to. It takes a special set of skills and talents to serve as an RA, and no dedicated, qualified student should be asked to choose between an RA job and financial stability. Giving RAs housing is a start, but it’s still not enough; to ensure that this important group of student leaders is as diverse, caring, and capable as possible, RA compensation needs to be increased to account for the work that RAs put in for their residents and for this community.
ANA WEST is a College junior from Spring Lake, Mich. studying English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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