Harvard Runs on Free Student Labor

Harvard needs to take responsibility for the way it burdens students

Laptops opened. Google Docs shared. When2meet links sent. Reminder sent again. Rooms booked. Canva pub prepared. Agenda set. Ice breaker ready. Google Calendar shared. Tasks delegated. Grievances aired. Strategies discussed. Ideas proposed. GroupMe made. Emails collected. Grants written. Co-sponsorships found. Food ordered. Recruitment. Community building. Student Involvement Fair. Visitas. Pubs sent. Events put on. Statements drafted. Rallies planned. Board meeting. General meeting. Committee meeting. Administration meeting. Working group. Repeat.

These actions and thoughts have filled my mind and my schedule for the majority of my time at Harvard. Our days are split up into our mornings, where we schedule in our classes, and afternoons and nights, where we schedule in our extracurriculars. Board after board, I found myself in these scenes that many students find themselves in across campus. The work must get done. The events must get planned.

We prioritize extracurriculars as we take on leadership positions and suddenly find ourselves falling behind in lecture because we had to finalize logistics for an event we were running after class. Homework time is scheduled in around our many meetings. Caffeine keeps us going as we juggle packed schedules.

The fact that we do all of it for free goes unacknowledged. Our passions motivate us to get involved, but it becomes harder and harder to stay motivated as the stress increases and our efforts are met with administrative inaction. We beg administrators to fund our events as we try to fill the gaps in this institution that loves boasting its large number of diverse student-run organizations but fails to provide us with the proper resources to thrive in this space that wasn’t created for us. We carve out space for ourselves and generations to come by getting involved in groups on campus. As we take more responsibility in creating these spaces, it becomes harder to feel the benefits.

Students take on the burden of providing support for other students when Harvard won’t do it. A prime example of this can be found with the creation of FYRE, the pre-orientation program for students from “historically marginalized communities.” Though students involved in its first year this past August enjoyed the program, it was ultimately only a consolation prize after Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana rejected a full summer bridge program. In his statement for the pre-orientation program, Khurana specified that it would be run by “student leaders” who volunteered for the positions as with all the pre-orientation steering committees.


The burden also falls on students involved in peer counseling groups as they try to fill the gaps in Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services despite constant demand for more counselors, particularly counselors of color. These groups are run by students for free — students who have their own mental health to worry about.

Upperclassmen are tasked with the responsibility of welcoming first-year students and creating community for students from marginalized backgrounds to find space at Harvard. Black convocation and Latinx convocation have all been put on by students who recognize the need for community to exist on campus — if it weren’t for the students, nothing would get done. There is no institutional memory to carry on the tradition each year.

Students get overworked as pressure is put on them to run whole organizations. We become the faces of them, and all that is done behind the scenes is rarely acknowledged. We try to balance our time with classes, jobs, and extracurriculars, risking our academics and mental health in the process.

Students get taken advantage of through these programs and it exposes us to how little administrators care about us once we’re here. When it gets harder and harder to keep up, students fall through the cracks. I’ve seen it happen with many of my own friends who were forced to leave campus or did so voluntarily. Either way, this is part of a vicious cycle as students are taken advantage of by an institution that perpetuates it. We need to see huge changes being made to the way students are compensated for their labor and recognize when Harvard is exploiting us to do the work they should be taking responsibility for themselves.

Laura S. Veira-Ramírez ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.