For Vassar students, few things epitomize Move-In Day more than the gaggle of smiling House Team members that descend upon each arriving car toting luggage, offering introductions and instilling house pride. This tradition will likely not change anytime soon, but beginning next year, certain members of the welcome crew will see a pay bump of 650 percent, as well as a significant shift in the structure and time commitment of their role. As detailed in emails sent out by house advisors on Jan. 24, the position of student fellow will now be compensated through Student Employment at a rate of $3,000 per year, in bi-weekly increments of $200. The change represents a substantial shift from the existing compensation of $200 per semester by honorarium, a figure that many student fellows have felt failed to adequately reward their significant emotional and logistical commitment to the role, as well as the consistent on-call nature of the work.
Student fellows will now work a precisely scheduled 10 hours per week, which will be filled in part with additional training efforts, such as monthly two-hour workshops. Three major trainings in April, August and January—increased from the August and January trainings of prior years—will not be compensated. Newly added student fellow commitments include bi-weekly one-on-one meetings with their house advisor and on-call hours for weekend nights. The latter will be assigned on a rotating basis, with each student fellow’s hours adding up to an average of one weekend per month. During weeks that they are not on weekend duty, student fellows will be required to advertise two to three open room hours to their fellowees.
With the increased emphasis on training will also come one opportunity per semester to participate in a 360° evaluation process. Feedback on strengths and areas for growth will be collected from house advisors, house student advisors, peer student fellows and fellowees and shared with student fellows by their house advisor. Commenting in an emailed statement on the revised framework for evaluation, Interim Director of Residential Life Rich Horowitz said, “The greater support allows for some more intentional leadership development that we expect will benefit our student fellows and first year students.” In terms of the changes to the role overall, Horowitz added, “[M]ost of the expectations found in the job description have been in the job descriptions for many prior years. We’re just highlighting some of these longstanding expectations of student fellows so that students can apply with clarity and fulfill student fellow responsibilities with this better understanding of what’s expected of them and what’s expected of us.”
While the full import of the changes will not be apparent until they go into effect, we at The Miscellany News recognize that some potential drawbacks are evident, especially for first-years. Historically, the student fellow system has offered incoming students a peer mentor with whom to identify: someone who has recently gone through the trials and tribulations of the first year and can thus empathize and offer counsel. First-years may be intimidated by and find it more difficult to identify with a junior or senior, who is further removed from the first-year experience and is likely focused on the world of life after graduation. Moreover, compensating the student fellow role as a campus job will shift the dynamic that existed between fellows and fellowees of past years. There is a risk that first-years could feel like their fellows are interacting with them because of the financial incentive, rather than because of genuine friendship. Upping compensation also creates a quandary for students who already have jobs on campus, which they would have to give up if they were to be selected as a student fellow. Especially with the ample opportunities for undergraduate research and paid leadership positions at Vassar, many students consider their jobs to be integral aspects of their pre-professional career. Given that positions are limited and many are competitive, leaving one’s job for a year to be on House Team could mean sacrificing the chance to return to it junior or senior year.
However, The Miscellany News also acknowledges many advantages to the new system. First, the changes might allow for a more uniform first-year experience. As Residential Life has defined the responsibilities of student fellows in a mandatory schedule, every fellowee will now enjoy the same amount and types of interactions with their fellow and fellow group. Beyond promoting a more homogenous first-year experience, this clearer definition of expectations will, according to Horowitz, ensure that potential student fellows understand in advance the time commitment involved and plan accordingly. He stated, “We hope it empowers student fellows to effectively manage their student fellow and personal time and finish their year excited for the next one, and not burnt out and running away from house team.”
Furthermore, a rotating weekend shift makes emergency assistance more accessible to first-years, who might feel more comfortable reaching out to a peer than directly to campus security. By delineating on call hours, the new policy promotes student safety, providing first-years with a trained resource who, charged with full responsibility for just one weekend a month, might be more likely to respond immediately in the event of a crisis than a student fellow under the previous system. In addition, despite the more regular schedule, clearer definition of responsibilities and increased pay, the new program does not dictate a more punitive role for student fellows than did the previous system. Student fellows remain confidants and peers, shaping first-years’ behavior by guiding them and setting a positive example, as opposed to enforcing disciplinary action. The role of student fellows as mentors and companions, as opposed to disciplinarians, further promotes student safety, as fellowees can discuss with them, for example, problematic substance use without fear of punishment. Finally, the new system awards student fellows the compensation they deserve. The job of a student fellow is time-consuming and potentially emotionally draining, as well as critical to the quality of students’ first year experience. Student fellows’ work deserves more than a mere $400 per year, and with the new program, student fellows will finally be rewarded for the challenging and essential nature of their job. According to Horowitz, “We think the increase in compensation reflects the recognition we have for the contributions made by student fellows.”
Ultimately, the Miscellany News is optimistic about the changes to the student fellow program, particularly for the student fellows, who now enjoy more clearly defined jobs, as well as an adequate reward for their work. Since potential drawbacks to the program, specifically a less intimate fellow-fellowee relationship resulting from increased pay and availability of the position to upperclassmen, largely affect the fellowees, the Misc hopes that Residential Life will monitor and, if necessary, respond to the effects of these changes on first-year students. The 360° evaluation process indeed indicates the Residential Life is dedicated to assessing whether the new program is successful for all members of the Vassar community who are involved. Of course, even potential flaws could transform into advantages for first-year students whose student fellows approach their jobs with a heightened sense of responsibility due to increased compensation, as well as with the wisdom and experience of older students. These benefits would accompany numerous other improvements for student fellows and fellowees alike. For students interested in becoming student fellows, the application, open until 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 7, can be found here. The Miscellany News looks forward to witnessing how changes to the student fellow program might enrich the residential life experience for both student fellows and first-year students.