It’s three weeks into the semester and you start hearing rumors that a lot of the freshmen are homesick. Most of them have never been this far from home, and they grasp for anything to remind them of their communities. As the president of an affinity organization, you’re reminded of how painful, alien, uncomfortable, and difficult your first months at Harvard were.
You decide to host an event with comfort food and advice from upperclassmen. It takes you five hours to plan the event. Even though you’re drowning in work, haven’t gone to the gym in weeks, and find yourself generally overwhelmed, you spend five hours planning. If there’s a chance those freshmen, who share backgrounds similar to yours, will feel more supported than you did, you’ll make the time.
You’ll make time, over and over again. An hour and a half for a resume workshop. Two hours serving as a pseudo-therapist or emotional sounding board. Three hours to take them winter coat shopping. Four hours to set up a mentorship program. Countless hours reassuring others that they belong.
You might begin to call the time and energy you’ve spent unpaid labor. It comes with no financial gain, little prestige, and only sporadic appreciation. Unpaid labor, for decades now, falls largely on students who come from underrepresented backgrounds.
In 1976, RAZA, the undergraduate Mexican-American student organization, was in charge of recruiting Mexican-American applicants. These efforts were successful, with the number of admitted Chicano students jumping from 18 to 32 in just one year. Even so, the recruiters were not paid and their recruiting trips were “no vacation.” Undergraduates even had to fundraise amongst themselves to pay for a plane ticket to recruit in Los Angeles when the Admission Office would not fund the fare. Students were doing work that was clearly the College’s responsibility.
Hours of students’ time has been spent educating the University about its blind spots. Students were instrumental in the push to bring ethnic studies to Harvard, in 1972, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2008, and 2016. On issues from curriculum to decor, administrators have relied on student labor to guide their decisions.
In 2003, the Black Students Association wrote and published a 322-page “Black Guide to Harvard.” It offered information to help black students navigate Harvard, ranging from hair salon suggestions to acknowledgements of serious campus issues. Just a year later, Latinx students debuted “La Vida at Harvard: The Unofficial Latino Guide to Harvard University.” Similarly, the publication served as a resource center, outlining classes and restaurants that might be of interest to Latinx students.
These publications undoubtedly helped black and Latino students, but would not have been possible without an extreme amount of time and effort. “I can’t believe this project is over. I feel as if I have just given birth,” one student told The Crimson.
These examples, and the countless others that have gone unnoticed, share a couple of things in common. They’re conceptualized and executed by undergraduates. Students fill gaps administrators leave, either because of a lack of programming or because their programming doesn’t sufficiently address the needs of marginalized groups. When administrators fail, students pick up the slack. Though time consuming, they manage to find funds, venues, and the time to plan programming that will support their peers.
And this labor is, more often than not, unpaid.
The University has, luckily, begun to compensate students for work that was previously unpaid. Peer Advising Fellows are given a $500 stipend each semester. The Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, the Admissions Office, and the Harvard Foundation all employ undergraduates to help with their efforts. The Office of Equity Diversity and Inclusion hires Diversity Peer Educators to create programming around issues of equity on campus.
But these offices are only able to employ a small percentage of the individuals doing work that supports students, and their efforts often fail to sufficiently address student need. Every year, UMRP seeks volunteers to help with the call-a-thons when students are admitted. The events put on by the Harvard Foundation and the Diversity Peer Educators often feel insufficient. They host important events, but they are generally opt-in and too general to address the immediate needs of struggling students from underrepresented backgrounds.
When considering the influence on students, particularly those who are struggling, programming put on by affinity groups is generally more focused and effective. It generally comes out of goodwill—the same way that advising administrators, informal mentoring, and other forms of unpaid labor do.
After we acknowledge these efforts as what they are, we should seek ways to ensure that students are compensated for the indispensable work they do. Perhaps this includes encouraging (or requiring) the presidents of affinity groups to be Diversity Peer Educators or Foundation Interns, both groups with missions aligned to those of affinity groups. More radically, the College could create stipends for the president of any organization that directs supports students from marginalized backgrounds.
Unpaid student labor is not a fringe occurrence, applying in only a few instances. It ensures that hundreds of students feel like they belong, like they will survive, and like they have a stake in this university. Let’s acknowledge the importance of unpaid labor, and give its bearers what they deserve.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.