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Emma Cunningham / Gavel Media

Why Your Job Sucks: Perspectives from BC's Student Workers

The first lesson I learned when I came to Boston College is that money doesn’t last long. Tuition costs almost $90,000 a year,  CorePowers costs $8 apiece in the dining hall, and textbooks I foolishly thought I needed set me back hundreds of dollars without ever being opened. After several frantic weeks of rationing meals—my first-year hubris deluded me into thinking the Light Plan would be enough—and scrounging for loose coins in the vending machines, I finally arrived at an ingenious solution to my financial worries—I would get a job. Luckily, BC offers dozens of part-time job openings for students of all walks and years. These tasks range from preparing coffee and muffins at the Chocolate Bar to staffing the Residential Life front desk in Maloney. Being young, dumb, and very hungry, I started working in my second semester as a student caller at the Cadigan Alumni Center on the Brighton Campus.

 

Before my first month was even up, I was crushed. For three hours a night, three nights a week throughout February, I sat at a computer and dialed up to 300 alumni phone numbers a night and begged for donations. Almost every single call went to voicemail, and the few who picked up were either too busy or too disinterested to talk. Multiple people hung up on me each night. Some nights, I couldn’t even manage to get a single person to talk to me. A small but persistent part of my conscience cringed at my soliciting donations to a school that already boasted a multibillion-dollar endowment.

 

The call center is not a representative example of most student jobs at BC; it’s somewhat infamous for being a particularly draining job with a high turnover rate. While I was fortunate enough that my early struggles did not define my (ongoing) job as a student caller, they did make me wonder if my work experience was an isolated one or not. Did other student workers feel burned out by their jobs? Did other student workers wonder if their jobs were meaningful? And how did other student workers feel about balancing their jobs with schoolwork and social life?

 

Without trying to self-aggrandize, I think it’s fair to say that undergraduate student workers are the lifeblood of countless services on campus. Just as student workers remain essential to a functioning BC, on-campus jobs remain invaluable for the students who have them. Financially, the benefits are obvious. Having a dependable income, even if it’s only for a part-time job, is transformative for students. Additionally, regularly interacting with different members of the BC community outside of an academic context builds empathy and contributes to the community. On-campus jobs are absolutely essential for undergraduate student workers, but they aren’t the solutions to all of our problems. Sometimes, they can be the problems themselves.

 

PREFERRING: Good pay, flexible hours. Benefits are a plus.

 

Though Massachusetts law sets the state minimum wage at $15 an hour, most part-time jobs at BC pay at least $15.75 an hour, if not more. Additionally, some jobs come with additional benefits; for example, BC Dining offers student workers a meal stipend for each full shift worked. Though student workers tend to be satisfied with their pay, this is not a universal experience. An anonymous Residential Assistant told The Gavel that they would “like to be paid” or “receive some kind of stipend” for their job, as RAs do not receive any financial compensation outside of free room and board. Worse, even this compensation RAs already receive can be unreliable; the still officially unrecognized ResLife Student Workers Union reports that some RAs have seen their need-based financial aid decrease after becoming RAs. In Campus Recreation, a spin instructor making $20 an hour expressed some dissatisfaction with their pay due to high certification costs.

 

Concerns about unfair pay also taint some jobs. One CoRo employee making $15.75 an hour said her hourly wage feels “a bit frustrating from time to time” due to the frequently stressful nature of the work. This includes but isn’t limited to working during rushes, knowing how to properly make drinks, restocking the cafe store, and dealing with rude customers. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the difference in pay between baristas and Dining Interns; Dining Interns make $17.50 an hour for less intense promotional and planning work. “For the amount of work that we do, and knowing that Dining pays its interns significantly more, I feel that CoRo baristas should absolutely get paid more,” they told The Gavel.

 

On the other hand, most student workers who spoke to The Gavel were satisfied with how much they worked, with one Hillside worker describing their time spent at work (8-12 hours a week) as a “decent amount” and noting the “relative ease” of picking up and dropping shifts. However, some expressed frustration with not being able to pick up more shifts because of classes or overstaffing, in the case of one barista.

 

SEEKING: Positive work environment, supportive coworkers/bosses.

 

For undergraduate students, on-campus jobs tend to have more relaxed environments. After all, most student workers spend their shifts working alongside other students, some of whom may include their supervisors. A Campus Recreation supervisor even described their relationship with their colleagues as being “like a family,” with other student workers praising their work environments as lively, friendly, or, at the very least, laid-back. One Hillside employee described a “kind of camaraderie” with their coworkers formed by working in the food industry, a bond that extended to their full-time coworkers. “I’m very close with some of them. They are like second parents to me,” they said. 

 

There are exceptions to this experience, though. That same Hillside employee described their two managers as a “good cop” and a “bad cop.” A Fitness Attendant at the Plex singled out their direct supervisor as “rude” and apathetic: “he doesn’t show face most of the time, and it appears that he really just doesn’t care about his staff or his job.” A CoRo worker alleged one of their pro staff managers not only “doesn’t know a single staff member’s name,” but also “threatened to withhold or deduct” employee pay. Wage theft – withholding an employee’s contractually obligated pay – constitutes the largest form of theft in the United States and is illegal in Massachusetts. If BC wants to care for the whole person, it starts with ensuring fair treatment and compensation for their student employees.

 

PURSUING: Work-life-school balance.

 

Balancing school and social life is tough enough already, and working around 10 hours a week on top of that can exacerbate the challenges of the college experience. One Dining employee described feeling like they were “scrambling” to balance work and school, and they were “always missing out” on social experiences with their friends. “[Working] just takes up a lot more than it looks like on paper,” another student worker explained. “I see my friends who don’t work, or only work a few hours a week and how much more time they have, and it’s really hard to know how much time I’m losing.” Other employees described having to “make sacrifices” and take on more of a “burden” academically in order to balance responsibilities. One such sacrifice can be mental well-being: a student caller at the Cadigan Alumni Center said their job would “negatively impact [their] mental health due to the nature of the position.” From personal experience, low answer rates and occasionally hostile behavior from callees can be exceptionally draining. “It’s definitely not for everyone,” another caller said.

 

It bears repeating, however, that the negative experiences of several student workers at certain jobs do not define the work experience for all. One barista called their job a “nice break” from academics, and a Robsham Scene Shop employee reported that they were able to develop “strong friendships” with their coworkers “beyond work hours.” While acknowledging the fact that some workplaces have more tight-knit communities than others, it’s clear that working on campus can develop meaningful relationships with other students and full-time employees.

 

DESIRING: Purpose, meaning, self-actualization even.

 

So why do we work? I’m not asking why we start working because that almost always boils down to financial reasons, like being able to afford dining hall sushi or to spend a weekend exploring Boston. The question is why we keep working despite the trouble. Here, too, money can talk the loudest, but I think it’s fair to say that many BC student workers genuinely love their jobs. “I wanted to have a way to contribute to the community and take care of myself financially,” a Robsham employee told The Gavel. “There is definitely a sense of community among all the students who work at BC, and I’m proud to say I’m a student employee.” Working part-time as a full-time student is “challenging,” a ResLife office assistant said, “but I wouldn’t really have it any other way.” 

 

There can be a disconnect between student workers and BC students who don’t work. A Dining employee said their job reminded them that “not everyone at BC lives off their parents’ funding,” and a Robsham worker described feeling “[shocked] when [they] started meeting people at BC who had never had a job before.” Obviously, working doesn’t make us better or even different. A part-time job is just something we must do on top of being college students, and that’s the reality for many of us. The fact that it’s not a reality for many others only reinforces the class divides that already exist at BC. On campus, as stratified by class as ours, understanding who works and why can highlight the sometimes not-so-obvious differences that define, distinguish, and divide our student body.

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