Garbage was strewn across the bathroom floor. Old bottles of shampoo were left empty in the sink. In the common room, a large, sticky stain of spilled soda spread across the floor. The dorm was seemingly untouched since the summer school students had left. This was the first room Samuel Murdock ’23 slept in at Harvard.
Murdock is from Bay Shore, Long Island, a small hamlet beside the sea. He left home for Harvard five days early to participate in a pre-orientation program called Fall Clean-Up, or FCU, in which freshmen are paid $13.50 an hour to clean dorms before the rest of the student body arrives. Murdock was prepared to get dorms ready for his classmates. He did not expect to have to clean his own room, too.
Murdock began by wiping up the stain, taking out the trash, clearing the bathroom. He started to think it was a little odd — “a little awkward” — that the University wanted the rest of the student body to arrive to freshly cleaned dorms, while the Fall Clean-Up participants arrived to dirty ones. It made him feel like Harvard was telling him “that this particular group — FCU people — they don’t deserve or need the dorms to be cleaned for them, but that the incoming class does.” He wondered, “Why aren’t we treated with the same equity as the rest of the class that’s moving in?”
A few months before Murdock moved into Canaday, Harvard Graduate School of Education assistant professor Anthony A. Jack published a book that grappled with that very question. Jack’s book, “The Privileged Poor,” is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with students at a fictional prestigious university — referred to as “Renowned” in his book. Renowned has a program similar to Fall Clean-Up.
In his book, Jack, a tutor in Mather House, explores the ways colleges welcome — or fail to welcome — students to their campuses.
Fall Clean-Up widens class division at Harvard, Jack argues in an interview. “By virtue of how it stands within the orientation lineup,” he says, Fall Clean-Up provides an “economic incentive” for lower-income students to spend pre-orientation cleaning, while other freshmen might paint, volunteer, or backpack. This, in turn, facilitates “segregated networks — and segregated introductions to the University.”
Fall Clean-Up is the only pre-orientation that pays students. It asks them to clean — to excavate dorms filled with dust and debris, to leave the porcelain of their peers’ toilet bowls gleaming. The work can be difficult; the hours are long. Many feel they have no choice but to do Fall Clean-Up. Some contend that the program is “demeaning,” that it creates an uncomfortable power dynamic between students, and that it amplifies cultural stereotypes about who cleans. Others see it as an opportunity: They appreciate the work and the income it provides.
“One of the main goals we seek to achieve through these programs is to create opportunities for students to interact with and learn from fellow students who come from different backgrounds, locations, and carry different perspectives,” says Associate Dean for Student Engagement, and Acting Associate Dean for Inclusion and Belonging, Alexander R. Miller.
The First-Year Retreat and Experience, a pre-orientation program aimed at first-generation, lower-income students — now in its second year — complicates the decision further: Students from underrepresented backgrounds now must choose between earning $500 and learning to navigate the university they’re about to enter. Harvard only permits 30 students to enroll in both FCU and FYRE — most must choose one. While FYRE prepares students for their first year of school, FCU participants prepare students’ dorms.
The structure of Harvard’s pre-orientation programs, some students argue, divides those who can forgo a paycheck from those who cannot.
Brian K. Conwell ’22 is from Kodiak, Alaska, a small town of 6,000 on a remote island off of the state’s blustery southern coast. In high school, Conwell worked jobs at restaurants and cafes. At Harvard, he spent his first week in the Fall Clean-Up program. He recalls lively breakfasts in the Mather dining hall and days spent working with his team.
Conwell says he preferred the work of Fall Clean-Up to his high school service jobs. He liked the freedom it afforded — no hovering bosses, no arbitrary rules.
Weeks after Jack’s book was published, Temple University professor of education Sara Y. Goldrick-Rab tweeted, “Low-income students at HARVARD working 20 hours a week in their first year of college cleaning goddamn dorms?? And we keep giving this wealthy place our public dollars why exactly?” Her posts set off a furious online debate over the ethics of Dorm Crew and Fall Clean-Up; countless students and scholars weighed in on both sides of the dispute. Her criticism hit on a fundamental question: Is there something inherently wrong with Harvard paying some of its students to clean?
Conwell takes issue with Goldrick-Rab’s criticism of Fall Clean-Up; he does not believe the work should be “stigmatized,” and, in fact, finds it rewarding. “I think manual labor is great,” Conwell says. “I think that no one is above cleaning bathrooms, especially not Harvard students.”
Conwell further refuted Goldrick-Rab’s “20 hours” comment in an email: “This is a vaaaaast overstatement. I would even go so far to call that statement a lie.”
In an email, Goldrick-Rab responds to Fall Clean-Up participants who say they enjoy the work: “It is always possible to find people happy with the status quo and grateful for any opportunity. It hardly means their conditions are just.” She says that simply because participants like Conwell enjoy the program does not mean it should exist.
Ibrahim Ibrahim ’22 argues that the act of cleaning can’t be separated from who is doing it. “FCU is mostly kids that are from low-income backgrounds or some element of minority backgrounds. And the fact that they’re cleaning other kids’ dorms and bathrooms. . . it might sort of inject this false power dynamic in their heads.”
At Harvard, lower-income students and “a disproportionate number of black and Latinx students” clean, according to Jack. Data from The Crimson’s 2018 Freshman Survey indicates that 18 percent of students in Fall Clean-Up identified as black, compared to 4 percent in FOP. Jack contends that cleaning cannot be divorced from the history and stereotypes associated with the task: “You cannot ignore the implication of the fact that the only people — that many of the people who you see cleaning — at a university, typically, are black and Latinx,” he explains.
To Conwell, the criticisms of the power dynamic between peers is a “huge oversimplification” of the work of Fall Clean-Up. He enjoys the work — those who want to do it should be able to, he argues. He’s certainly observed that more lower-income students than affluent students participate in FCU, but he credits that to “the structure of our university and the structure of the way that people work in society.” Conwell holds that these class and power dynamics are larger institutional problems. They go beyond the individual students who participate in FCU: “I don’t think that should be any reason to castigate the students that are working themselves.”
The perceived tensions of Fall Clean-Up carry into the school year during its ongoing semester equivalent, Dorm Crew. While conducting his research, Jack found that Harvard Dorm Crew workers are at times treated dismissively by their peers — more as custodial staff than as fellow students. Their sense of belonging within the University suffers. These students see comments like a recent post on Harvard Confessions, an undergraduate Facebook page, accusing a Dorm Crew worker of stealing their possessions: “To whoever from dorm crew stole my airpods off my bed this morning: fuck you.” Some students who work Dorm Crew are made to feel “that though they may be, you know, at the school, they are not of it,” says Jack.
But not everyone feels that divide. One Friday night, Raul Cuevas Pelayo ’20 was cleaning a bathroom while students were hanging out in the suite’s common room. He says he felt a little “lame” compared to these other students. He was working on a Friday night; they were socializing. “Then as I walked out, I actually saw one of the people who lived there. And he thanked me. And he was just, like, a really cool dude.”
Still, there seems to be something fundamental about cleaning that skews Fall Clean-Up’s demographics. If a paid research assistance program was instituted as a pre-orientation option, Jack suggests that “you would see a much more even spread, or even an overrepresentation of students from more affluent backgrounds and prep schools applying for that program.” Students raised with more privilege, he predicts, would have the confidence to apply for such a program, while lower-income students might not.
Fall Clean-Up ended in early September. The work crews made group chats, promised weekly dinners, and then dissolved. After FCU, Ibrahim thought about doing Dorm Crew as a term-time job. His leaders encouraged it, emphasizing the flexibility and the pay — a starting wage of $16.25 per hour, with a minimum of two hours per week. But Ibrahim eventually decided against it, because to him, the work was “really demeaning.”
Murdock also chose not to do Dorm Crew after Fall Clean-Up, but he still wonders what it would have been like to knock on his peers’ doors, bucket in hand, and leave yellow post-its notes that read, “Your bathroom was cleaned by Sam. Let us know if you have comments, complaints, or compliments” fluttering on mirrors around campus.
For Murdock, one question lingers: “Imagine the scenario that you’re a Dorm Crew worker, and you get assigned to clean your own room. Like, why can’t people do it themselves?”
The earliest iteration of Dorm Crew arrived at Harvard in late 1950, in the form of the Student Porter Program. Before that, the University hired cleaners from outside the school, but they anticipated those workers would soon demand higher wages. The University was also looking to supplement the incomes of working-class students attending with the help of the GI Bill.
In the University’s eyes, the Student Porter Program killed two birds with one stone: a reliable supply of workers to clean dorms and additional income for some students. At first, the program faltered. Dunster House residents told The Crimson in 1951 they had concerns about the “degrading social stigma” associated with the job. Others noticed a decline in quality from the former maids’ work to that of the new student porters. But the program persisted, was rechristened ‘Dorm Crew,’ and grew to its current size of more than 800 affiliated students.
Through Dorm Crew’s history, as financial aid packages have expanded and students have had less obligation to earn money toward their tuition, some have observed, Dorm Crew’s numbers have shrunk. Jack’s “The Privileged Poor” describes a similar situation at Renowned: “When Renowned increased the amount of financial aid it granted to students, the number of students working fell below what was needed to ready the dorms for freshmen to move in.” Administrators at Renowned lobbied the office of the dean of freshmen to move Community Detail — Renowned’s Dorm Crew parallel — into the pre-orientation roster.
Fall Clean-Up became its own pre-orientation program in “the late nineties,” according to head Dorm Crew captain Benjamin E. Frimodig ’21, a former Crimson news editor. Until two years ago, Fall Clean-Up students had to pay out-of-pocket for their food during the week. In recent years, the program has added some additional advising and included HUDS meals.
Fall Clean-Up and Dorm Crew are woven into the fabric of how Harvard functions. But many schools, Jack observes, do not have similar programs: “I can imagine a world in which Dorm Crew does not exist, because Dorm Crew does not exist at the vast majority of places.” At the end of the day, Jack says, “Dorm Crew is not an essential element of life.”
Nia S. Warren ’23 remembers what the Yard looked like when she first set foot on Harvard’s campus for Fall Clean-Up. Each pre-orientation program had its own decorated table. She walked past the First-Year Outdoor Program, the First-Year Urban Program, and the First-Year Arts Program — each crowded with huge signs, bright t-shirts, and spirited students. Leaders were full of pep, waving over their respective freshmen, introducing themselves, and asking for names.
Warren looked around for the Fall Clean-Up table. It seemed plainer than the others; it had just a “small little sign, like it was nothing special,” Warren recalls, “[It was] kind of just like: we’re here because we’re getting paid.”
Harvard offers six pre-orientation programs in the week before Opening Days. FAP costs $460 before financial aid, while FOP costs $460 plus expenses for hiking shoes, backpacks, and other gear. The First-Year Urban Program, the First-Year International Program, and the First Year Retreat and Experience program are free; these programs do not cover incidentals besides room and board.
James A. Bedford ’20 is from Plymouth, England. He lives with his father on a boat because it is “cheaper than a house,” he adds, as if he has explained it a million times before. Like Warren, Bedford’s introduction to Harvard lacked fanfare: FCU skipped the cheers, and they got straight to work. Bedford felt out of place, just as the sight of trash in Murdock’s sink left him feeling neglected by the University. From the beginning, Bedford and Murdock felt that the University deemed them different from their peers.
It took Bedford some time to pinpoint exactly why he felt alienated. Amidst meeting other students and recovering from jetlag, he did not look around and think, “Oh, we’re all here because we’re poor and we need money.” At the time, he says he “had no conception of the” — here, his voice lowers in emphasis — “disparity that is present on this campus between rich and poor.” But shortly into his time at Harvard, he began to reconsider the way Fall Clean-Up functions: It distinguishes between the students who need to earn quick money for school supplies and those who do not.
Many of the students who end up participating in FCU would have liked to do other programs. “What turned me off about FUP at the time wasn’t what it was, but what it wasn’t. And it wasn’t a program that paid me,” Ibrahim says. “Fall Clean-Up gave me dollars, and I needed that.”
During pre-orientation, some students can afford to do what they love. Others don’t have that luxury.
Fall Clean-Up “is not a truly elective choice,” says Jack. Rather, it is a choice “made attractive by money, not because of an affinity.”
Though many students choose Fall Clean-Up to earn cash, neither the program’s mission statement nor its extensive “about” page mentions money. The University presents Fall Clean-Up as a program with the same goals as the other options, to foster relationships and gain access to resources. The financial reality of students tells a different story.
For Fall Clean-Up participants, the day begins at 9 a.m. Students head from Weld Basement to their assigned dorms, brooms in their hands and vacuums strapped to their backs. Around noon, they take a break for lunch, and then, at 3:45 p.m., the workday ends. Students are now free to do as they please. Their first priority: Shower off the layers of sweat and grime that have accumulated throughout the day. After cooling off in the dorms, some socialize, exploring the Square or playing basketball. Others are so exhausted from seven hours of cleaning that they sleep through much of the afternoon.
In 2017, the program added freshmen advising measures such as “Research at Harvard: A Guide for First-Years,” and lunches at the Office of Career Services, as well as a few social activities, like trivia night. Some students also attend on-campus events thrown by other pre-orientation programs.
Roderick P. Emley’s ’23 first day of FYRE was a blur. Breakfast at 8 a.m., welcome ceremony at 9, then a visit to the Harvard Art Museums. After lunch, Emley headed to a financial literacy workshop. Lectures and panels filled his schedule until dinner, which was an open mic with the theme “Harvard, I Messed Up!” Emley then headed to FYRE Family Time. Every day of FYRE ends with Family Time: “families,” cohorts of 10 students carefully placed together by the steering committee, meet and talk about themselves. In preparation for the school year, they reflect on their pasts, their shared anxieties, and their hopes.
Two years ago, Harvard piloted FYRE as a pre-orientation program targeted at lower-income, first generation students. In 2020, it will return for its third year. Due to University-imposed financial constraints, the program is capped at 100 people — this year, close to 300 applied.
Former FYRE director Sade A. Abraham makes a distinction between the by-the-book definition of first-generation, low-income (FGLI) and the students whom FYRE hopes to help. The traditional definition of first-generation is “if one or more of your parents did not attend a four-year college or university,” and low-income status is determined by the FAFSA ‘Expected Family Contribution’ value. However, she adds, “I think that if you’ve had financial hardship, that’s where we’re very flexible, especially in FYRE, in defining who can be there.”
When Emley left his tiny town in rural New Hampshire for FYRE, the trees were just beginning to turn a deep shade of red. Emley wanted to do a pre-orientation program; coming to Harvard was intimidating. He first considered doing Fall Clean-Up. Then, he reconsidered: How exactly did he want pre-orientation to prepare him for a place like Harvard?
He knew it could be a struggle for people from underrepresented backgrounds to find their community at the school. “There wasn’t a structure in FCU. Like, at the end of the day, FCU is just, like, cleaning dorms.” Obviously, he says, there’s value in that: You get paid and you meet your future peers. Ultimately, though, Emley decided to do FYRE.
At Harvard, open access to the University’s resources does not begin with admission; students must have a background that equips them to navigate the landscape. Emley believed FYRE would give him that access. It seemed like it was “trying to level the playing field, rather than just financially trying to level the playing field.”
Emley was not the only first-year who chose between FCU and FYRE. Some interviewees noted that the applicant pools for the two programs have significant overlap. Many students who might attend FYRE, identifying as first-generation or low-income, are the same students who may see FCU as a financial necessity.
Emley recalls of Fall Clean-Up: “Harvard kind of branded it as, like, ‘Oh, it’s the program for the lower-income student or the first-gen student,’ but I don’t know, cleaning bathrooms should not be that type of program.”
In a statement about Fall Clean-Up’s programming, Miller wrote, “Like all programs and initiatives within the Dean of Students Office, we are committed to assessing and making improvements to these programs on an ongoing basis.”
A small handful of students are able to do a joint program — three days of FCU and then the full three days of FYRE. Abraham explains the rationale behind this: “We realized it was a disservice to the students who had to choose between, like, money and resources. I would not want to make the decision.”
However, only 30 students were accepted to the joint program this year. Alyx J. Britton ’21 and Lisette Leon ’21, the current co-chairs of FYRE, explained why the number was so low.
“Hypothetically, if all 100 of our students decided to do both, and then halfway through the week, Dorm Crew has 100 of its people leave, things are going to be so rough for the people that are still there.” Without this cap on enrollment, there would be an exodus of Fall Clean-Up students leaving for FYRE — a problem for Fall Clean-Up’s labor force.
The question remains: Does Fall Clean-Up meet the needs of first generation, lower-income students who do not do FYRE?
Building resources and advising networks is central to FYRE. In Fall Clean-Up, this is not a focus. “The biggest difference for me,” Jack says, “is that when you do FYRE, your networks also include faculty, staff, and administrators.”
Through FYRE, Murdock was able to “find people and resources to connect with.” He met people who he could turn to when he had questions during the semester. He felt comfortable asking these adults and older students: “Wait, how do I do this?”
Both Fall Clean-Up and FYRE appeal to students from underrepresented backgrounds, but FYRE’s appeal is rooted in shared experiences and an exploration of a common identity. Its intense schedule is catered specifically to first-generation and low-income experiences. In Fall Clean-Up, on the other hand, that type of bonding and supportive infrastructure remains a mostly informal element of the program.
David Cao ’23 was assigned vacuuming as his task for the week of Fall Clean-Up. The equipment was heavy and loud. Cao sweat profusely in the hot dorm rooms, unable to hear his cleaning partner over the combined roar of their vacuums. They got close in other ways, though. “Everyone who’s done vacuuming, like, we just have this common suffering, and so we just bond over that.”
In FYRE, Emley found an affinity group, along with the tools he needed to navigate his identity and enter into the school year.
“I feel like [being first generation, low-income] is a bigger part of my identity now because of FYRE,” Emley reflects. “I started school with that kind of identity, and I’m not sure if, if I hadn’t done FYRE, I would have.”
Is Fall Clean-Up a service to students?
Conwell believes that it is. “Students are providing something to the University. And in return, the University is providing to us, as students.” Conwell is a Dorm Crew captain now — he easily balances his job with the other things he loves, volunteering with the Small Claims Advisory Service and after-school tutoring. In fact, he says, because Dorm Crew is flexible and pays well, the job gives him the autonomy to do what he cares about.
Murdock was jarred when he first got to Harvard; so much about Fall Clean-Up seemed to remind him of his difference from his peers. When he switched to FYRE, he began to “feel less like an outlier.” Still, he is grateful for Fall Clean-Up — the people he met and the money he made. To Murdock, Fall Clean-Up is a “double-edged sword.”
“Nobody wants to speak up and complain super heavily about this opportunity, because it is an opportunity,” he explains. On the other hand, Murdock says, “the fact that that is one of the only jobs that is so readily available, almost forces a lot of people into doing it that wouldn’t otherwise want to do it.”
“You don’t want to say, ‘This is immoral, we should stop having students clean dorm rooms,’ because then what are all the students that are employed by Dorm Crew — what are they going to do then?”
Jack believes Fall Clean-Up reminds some students that they are not members of Harvard’s affluent majority — two-thirds of Harvard students come from the top 20 percent of income in the U.S. Certain freshmen are “brought into this place thinking that they are equals to their peers, but from the very first day, they are reminded that they are not.”
—Magazine writer Olivia G. Oldham can be reached at email@example.com.
—Magazine writer Malaika K. Tapper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.