Student organizations run on unpaid labor

Unpaid positions present barriers but can afford valuable opportunities, according to student leaders.

by Emily Fagell | 2/11/22 5:20am

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by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2022 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Like many Dartmouth students, Ledyard Canoe Club president Gab Smith ’22 is constantly juggling: Smith balances club leadership, academics and her social life in addition to a 20-hour per week job at a New York-based mortgage company. Smith initially pursued leadership in Ledyard because she was determined to get things done and felt like a “natural leader.” However, Smith said that it is a “privilege” to have enough time to commit to her various activities, noting that students often have too much on their plates.

“I think that Dartmouth students in general are stretched very thin,” Smith said. “Because they love something, they will put in that extra time and move things around, get less sleep and it’s not always fair. I wish that [unpaid leadership] could be something that’s more accessible, because you do have to have that time.”

Paid campus positions can be a central part of the college experience, with many students taking on roles as peer tutors, baristas and research assistants alike. But unpaid positions are just as integral to campus life. At Dartmouth, students regularly step up to manage clubs and other organizations, receiving no monetary compensation for their work.

Two such situations on campus are Greek governance — which encompasses the Greek Leadership Council, Interfraternity Council, Gender-Inclusive Greek Council, Inter-Sorority Council and National Pan-Hellenic Council — and the Dartmouth Outing Club, which houses subdivisions such as Ledyard and Cabin and Trail. According to U.S. News, approximately 60%of eligible Dartmouth students are affiliated with Greek Life, and the DOC has more than 1,500 student members. Despite their notable presence on campus, leaders in these organizations are not paid for their efforts. 

According to DOC president Emery Rheam ’22, students dedicate a “huge amount of time” to their unpaid roles in leadership.

“The biggest impact is it’s just a huge amount of time,” Rheam said. “It is many, many hours of my life that are dedicated to this. The ability to volunteer is a luxury — [the fact] that I can spend my free time doing that is a luxury — that I’m really fortunate to have.”

Rheam added that the time spent working for the DOC “could be spent” in a paid position, an opinion echoed by IFC president Danny Gold ’22. Gold said the lack of pay “definitely restricts” certain leadership positions for those who can afford not to work other jobs.

“There’s really not enough time in the day to do extra stuff,” Gold said, also pointing to burdens imposed by schoolwork and social life.

However, Rheam said that leadership roles are not “fully restrictive” but rather “restrictive to certain jobs,” like ones with fixed schedules. Rheam said she has friends who are able to work jobs with flexible schedules, such as tutoring or paid research, while still holding leadership positions.

Gold said he believes paid leadership would increase the quality of club membership by making the positions more competitive. He added that skilled people who may not otherwise consider leadership may be more incentivized to become more involved.

Likewise, Anne Guidera ’25, who works as a paid ski instructor, said she is more committed to her paid position than her unpaid roles as a member of the Allen House executive board and an ambassador for the Dartmouth Political Union.

“I think I am more committed just because I have a responsibility to be there, and I know that there are students who signed up to learn how to ski and I’m one of the few instructors there,” Guidera said. “I have to be there every Sunday for them, also because I’m getting paid. I have a contract.”

Still, Guidera said she does not believe she is entitled to pay in her other positions.

“You’re serving others,” Guidera said. “You are choosing to have that position. And just because you’re a leader, doesn’t mean you deserve to get paid.”

Smith also expressed hesitancy about accepting a salary, saying that monetization could corrupt her relationships with other club members.

“I don’t know if I necessarily would want to be paid,” Smith said. “I think that it would make me feel weird about being president and being somebody that people go to about things. Because it’s like, ‘Are we billing 15 minutes for talking to Abby about getting new boats?’ I feel like it just creates [a] kind of semantics within the leadership position.”

Smith also rejected the idea that pay correlates to commitment, asserting that people are “dedicated” and despite leadership positions being unpaid, elections for Ledyard are “usually contested.” 

Alex Breslav ’25, who works as a floor assistant at Alumni Gym and serves as public relations head for Rotaract, agreed that pay does not motivate students to explore their interests. He said that students pursue leadership positions because they are “passionate” and that he does not think receiving a paycheck would make a significant difference.

Breslav added that he spends the same amount of time per week on his paid job as he does his unpaid leadership role, despite the difference in compensation.

Rheam noted another issue with paying student leaders: The money would come out of the budget, reducing funding for other areas such as trips and student experiences. 

Smith agreed that funding might pose a problem for experience-based clubs like the DOC.

“I think in terms of student clubs, especially within the DOC, I feel like it’s more valuable to have money going towards the actual activities and towards the gear to make sure people are safe, as opposed to paying people,” Smith said. “Because then it’s like: ‘Okay, is this going to be a job for you? Or is this a commitment that you actually care about?’”

However, Smith said she thinks that certain leadership positions are deserving of pay, such as those within the diversity, inclusion, justice and equity division of the DOC, which she started in 2020.

“I have considered asking [the DOC directorate and OPO] to pay the coordinator for that [division], because that work is often done by POC and marginalized groups that have to put in a lot more emotional labor, as opposed to just physical labor,” Smith said. “It’s a lot more taxing on those people… I think work like that is definitely something that could and probably should be paid because you’re asking a lot more out of them than you would be asking out of a leader from any other club.”

Smith added that Ledyard currently pays its senior and junior business managers, both of whom work full time and keep the club operating. 

Outdoor Programs Office director Coz Teplitz wrote in an emailed statement that there are several other areas in which students may be paid for their work, such as staffing the rental equipment desk or managing the Collis Center.

“We want all students to have the opportunity to participate in student life,” Tepliz wrote. “Beyond providing low- to no-cost programs and activities, we aspire to ensure that there is a mix of involvement opportunities available to students, both operational (paid) and personal interest (unpaid) [...] Our division wants to ensure that there is never a financial barrier to student involvement and will help students who need paid work find a paid position that fits their skills and interests.”

However, according to Rheam, the issue of paying some students and not others — especially within a large organization like the DOC — poses a “complicated” question: “Where do you draw that line?” She explained that the DOC has countless leaders, and it could be difficult to determine which positions should receive compensation.

Likewise, Smith added that pay could exacerbate hierarchal bureaucracy in DOC clubs.

“Within a lot of the DOC clubs, there is kind of this level of bureaucracy,” she said. “It’s very political in terms of who’s in charge, who’s doing what, who’s a higher level leader [and] who’s allowed to lead this trip.”

“[If you pay certain students], you’re also ranking leadership positions,” Smith continued. “So it’s like: Who’s getting paid, and who isn’t?”

Although the leaders are not getting paid for their work, all three said that they have received non-monetary benefits. While some benefits are more tangible — such as free trips and gear discounts — others are more abstract, such as friendship, work experience and the development of new skill sets.

“I have met some of my closest friends through [the DOC],” Rheam said. “And I’ve learned some really cool concrete skills … [like] outdoor skills.”

Gold added that he mentions his IFC experience in job interviews and that he hopes his experience has prepared him for future work. Smith said that her role has made her better at handling uncomfortable situations and that she has found a “community” within Ledyard.

“[The Ledyard community] has been the main community for my entire time at Dartmouth,” Smith said. “… [It’s been] invaluable.”

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