Student First, Worker Second

By The Editorial Board of the Reed College Quest

For Alister Orozco, spending the summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York was a dream come true. The junior biology major planned to spend the summer months immersed in the elite laboratory’s undergraduate research program, working side by side with students from colleges across the country — including Yale, Cornell, and Saint John’s — on projects ranging from “Predicting Transcription Rates in E. coli using Artificial Neural Networks” to their own work in the development neuroscience of autism. The students’ final presentations in early August were to be a significant achievement for many: the chance to present cutting edge research in their chosen fields at one of the nation’s foremost laboratories.

Unfortunately, for Orozco, that final presentation was not to be.

On July 19th, while leaning over a confocal microscope, Orozco received a phone call from Reed’s Residence Life department to inquire why they would be missing the first two days of training for their position as a returning Hall Advisor. Orozco assured the department that they were engaged in an educational research opportunity backed by the National Science Foundation, and not “on vacation.” 

Prior to the 2023/24 school year, this would have been enough to reassure Residence Life, and reassure Orozco that their job as a House Advisor would be protected. Indeed, after also missing part of HA training during the summer of 2022, Orozco recalled being assured by then Residence Life Director Jen Hickman that: “all of [their] academics and [their] career development would be prioritized over a job.”

Not so this year. On July 24th, Orozco was informed that if they could not return to Reed by 9 AM on August 10th, the department “[would] look into whether you can remain an HA.” So, unable to obtain accommodations, despite repeated attempts, Orozco packed a bag and returned to Reed, leaving their research behind.

This is not an issue of bureaucratic inflexibility. It is not an issue of the expanding expectations of student work, or even of contractual obligation. Orozco admitted that they signed a contract agreeing to return to Reed by the 10th before even leaving for New York, although they felt they had been led to expect some flexibility in the terms of that contract — a reasonable conclusion given the department’s repeated use of the term “living document” to describe it. 

It is an issue, quite simply, of mistaken priorities. When it comes to “student work,” the guiding principle is right there in the name. Student first, worker second. Students come to college, first and foremost, to learn. When they take student work positions, they expect those positions to serve their learning, either through direct educational experiences or, when necessary, simple monetary support. Indeed, the most compelling reason to take a part time job with the college — and not with some outside corporation — is that the college is expected to prioritize students’ learning, and design hours with learning in mind. 

Yet that is not what we see here. We see a college using its students: as workers, as enforcers, as monetary assets. We see a college that has asked students like Alister to give up educational opportunity in order to become better workers, that has turned HAs into the first line of enforcement for the AOD policy and the first line of response for medical emergencies, that has even sent them on late night “rounds” in order to police their own peers. In short, we see a college that has ceased to see its “student workers” as students at all, that has stopped asking, “How can we serve our students?” and started asking “How can they serve us?”

This mindset is, in every way, the antithesis of what an undergraduate college should be. So we ask the college now to level with us: not to nitpick or squabble, nor to proclaim, “They signed a contract!” Of course they did. They’re students. They trusted the college to protect them, to protect their education, and not to use them to police their peers or offload more of the work meant for professionals onto their shoulders.

It does not matter how much they’re paid. It does not matter whether they signed a contract, or whether they agreed to attend a full week of training. The machinery of the college should bend to serve its students, not feed their bodies and minds through its gears and spit them out. It should find a way for them to present their summer research, should find a way for them to feel safe in their on-campus jobs and not fear for their safety as they patrol darkened sidewalks at the strike of midnight. It should, in short, find a way to serve its students and their needs, to support their education above all else, because that is what colleges are here to do.

That is the ideal at the heart of Reed, and of all colleges. And that is what we, the students, expect from our institution. Yet, instead, we hear another voice rising at Reed. It is a voice that has broken that trust, that has begun to see students as assets, as workers, as the enemy. It is the secretive voice that speaks in the mouth of Dean of Student Life Karnell McConnell-Black, when he signs his emails to HAs with bizarre exhortations prohibiting “unauthorized disclosure” of their contents and demands that anyone to whom it may be forwarded “destroy all copies of the original message.” It is the voice in the mouths of power that implicitly accuses students of “bullying,” with seemingly no recognition of the absurdity of the idea that undergraduates could ever “bully” professionals twenty years or more their senior. And it is the greedy voice that asked Alister Orozco to lay down their microscope and return to Reed for a job: that asked them to be a worker first, and a student second.

And when we hear that voice, in all its many mouths, we say, unequivocally, “No.” We deserve better. We demand better. And we hope, in eternal optimism, that we might yet hear a different voice. That Reed might yet find a way back from this, and once again, without hesitation, put students first.

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