Practices at odds with values, Student workers and org leaders report underappreciation, underpayment


Jonah Wexler and Matt Glover

As staff has been in flux and transition, more work and responsibilities have fallen to student workers to ensure the same programs and student experience is maintained. This has happened most strikingly in the Civic Engagement Center (CEC), which has seen three staff members leave this year: Eily Marlow ’97, Karin Trail-Johnson and Paul Schadewald.

Niko Bjork ’22, student coordinator for reflection, and Sarah Gotbetter ’22, Lives of Commitment (LOC) coordinator, are seniors who have worked in the CEC for years and have overseen programming in the wake of staff turnover. Bjork worked with Embody the Change (ETC) under Marlow and stepped up this year when she departed. As the Program Associate for Vocation and Reflection, Marlow oversaw both ETC and Perspective Collective. Bjork said his focus was on preserving ETC and transforming the program into something he could oversee. 

Gotbetter, likewise, stepped up to take over Lives of Commitment (LOC), a pre-orientation program. She has been involved with LOC all four of her years at Macalester, but it has only been her work study since her junior year. This year, Gotbetter is on her third supervisor, Sedric McClure, who has been at Macalester since 1999. McClure worked previously in the Department of Multicultural Life (DML), and this is McClure’s first year as a co-director of the CEC and Associate Dean of the IGC, along with Ruth Janisch. Gotbetter’s prior supervisors Marlow and Schadewald left, but she wanted to ensure that LOC would continue as it was something she valued.

“I literally can’t imagine my Macalester experience without [LOC],” Gotbetter said.

Bjork is also worried about students losing impactful experiences and the campus shifting over time.

“I feel like I’ve had a lot of really meaningful experiences, that perhaps people in the future at Macalester won’t have. The future ETC is a little bit unclear, . . . Macward Bound, the future of that is a bit unclear. . . . I don’t know if you knew about like 10k [a student-run music venue], like in the basement of Dupre. So I think we’re the last class that knows about that as a concept. And I’ve always thought it’d be really meaningful to have a space like that on campus that’s really student run and not in the Loch, or Kagin.”

Besides students taking on more duties as student workers, many have found themselves with significantly more responsibilities, both paid and unpaid. Rola Cao ’25 not only works for the Office of Student Leadership and Engagement (OSLE), she also is one of the college’s strategic planning champions, an at-large member of Macalester College Student Government’s Student Services & Relations Committee (SSRC) and serves on the Student Affairs Committee. Of these roles, the only compensated ones are Cao’s work study position with OSLE and the strategic planning champion position. Even with the compensation, the work piles up. Cao’s position for the OSLE is a new one and as such is in constant flux, with different tasks and obligations week by week. Regardless, Cao receives normal work study compensation for this work; between five and eight hours per week. 

“It has a lot of challenges, because compared to Student Engagement and Entrepreneurship […] at OSLE we try new programs, and try to get people to know about us and what OSLE does in general, and thats leads to a lot of space for innovation,” Cao said. 

Unlike many other departments though, where staff turnover has been a huge obstacle to coherent programming this school year, Cao noted that in OSLE, staff leadership has been incredibly focused in fostering a good work environment and cooperating with other campus operations, such as strategic planning.

“This is my dream job […] because my supervisor, Margaret Smith, [is] an amazing supervisor, I learned a lot from them, and they are also working for the strategic planning champions,” Cao said. “So we actually had a lot of conversations around strategic planning […] so it’s really integrated.”

Cao has found herself at the cutting edge of student leadership, much like Bjork has, with large responsibility impressed upon her. This is especially apparent in the work of the Strategic Planning Champions, where participants work much more than what they were expected for.

“I think the regular description for the student champion was like two hours per week, but there are weeks where it’s definitely more than two hours,” Cao said. 

Jewel Kerr ’23 faced a similar lack of transparency when it came to understanding the compensation options for Resident Assistants (RAs), a long-running issue over the course of this academic year. In September, RAs wrote and circulated an open letter calling for better and more transparent pay for RAs.

 “The fact that room is covered, but board isn’t covered,” Kerr said. “So basically, you are like forcing us into a position where we have to get a room with you and take away room [costs], then you charge us for board; that feels kind of sus. […] I think especially in the application process, there’s not a lot of transparency as to exactly what the money looks like. So then you’re halfway through the year before you realize it’s too late.”

Gotbetter noted a disparity between Macalester’s marketing and what the college seems to value in practice. 

“I do very much see LOC and the Civic Engagement Center and the IGC in general as so vital to Macalester’s marketing that is not acknowledged except by the people who exist in those office,” Gotbetter said.

“I​​t is super interesting, how a lot of Macalester’s marketing is so heavy on the student experience through different orgs, as well as student kind of led things like, I would consider Residential Life kind of student-led in that way that the first people that you see and interact with, [are] in its majority, our other students.” Kerr said.

Kerr, who is also one of the field captains and president for the club rugby team this past fall semester, said that being in that type of student leadership position requires a lot of work to create uplifting communities for students.

“As club sports leadership, because you take on so many [things], you put on so many hats at once–It’s hard to take all those hats off, “Kerr said.

On March 11, the Strategic Planning Committee hosted a four hour strategic planning session. Cao said that many student participants had to miss class to attend. At least one more multiple-hour-long session has occurred since then. Many participants hold additional student leadership roles, just as Cao does. This amplifies the burnout of already reticent students.

“I’m already seeing this really high overlap of leadership roles,” Cao said. “Like having this committee, that group — and these can be the same people, amazing people — that’s also too harsh as we’ll burnout. A lot of departments are trying to organize focus groups, and the same people are always invited somehow. I feel like we need to better include people, rather than having always [the same people] working here and there and potentially suffering from burnout.”

Regardless of all of these factors that weigh down the student experience and complicate the idea of what it means to be a student worker and leader, Cao said that she was still motivated to fulfill her role as a champion.

“Without these opportunities, I don’t think I would have the connections that I have right now.” Cao said.

Bjork said that he really valued his time spent in student organizations, and particularly his time working in the CEC. 

“At the same time, it’s a reason that I’m very happy I went to Macalester,” Bjork said. “I mean, the fact that I get to help run The Hege, help run ETC circles, help be on the [Sociology] search committee this year…” Bjork said. “If I was at a larger school, I know I wouldn’t have gotten all of those opportunities, maybe one.”

Despite these positive attitudes, students feel that they still deserve compensation, monetary or not, for their time and effort spent leaving Macalester a better place for future students.

“I think that there’s also other ways to value people and there’s other ways to show people that you are appreciative of what they bring to the Macalester community,” Kerr said. “And I don’t think that’s necessarily as prevalent on like Macalester admin’s […] docket of ways to appreciate students.”

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