A Roadblock of Student Leadership

Student leadership has defined my experience in college. From the moment I stepped on my Pennsylvanian campus I was determined to make up for my high school apathy by taking advantage of every opportunity that was thrown at me. Participating in student leadership was the first chance I had to think creatively, problem solve as part of a team, and put effort into a project that would be enjoyed by others. The training and experience I received was integral to the start of my journey towards understanding my own leadership potential. I valued feeling integrated into my campus’ community and being able to shape it with the events we were choosing to run.

In a lot of ways, I learned more practical skills through engaging in student leadership activities than through what I was learning in the classroom. As a sociology and psychology double major, I was theorizing and learning about social phenomena, but what we learn in the classroom is separated from day to day life experiences. Participating in new student orientation, the honors program, conducting undergraduate research, and working in my university’s Community and Civic Engagement Center activated a very different aspect of my personality. Through these opportunities, I developed competency in things that may seem basic but are critical to success — like being able to answer a phone professionally. More than that, I went from being reserved and unsure to self-possessed about my abilities.

Despite my enthusiasm for student leadership, I eventually hit a roadblock to fulfilling all of the positions I wanted: most student leadership is unpaid. I am grateful for all of the opportunities that I have taken advantage of since beginning college, but the reality is that I would not have been able to do many of them without my parents to cosign loans to pay for my education. And this is not about juggling — I average out at about 6 or 7 hours of class time a day, plus the work that I complete outside of the classroom. If you consider that I would have to at least 30 hours to pay for basic expenses without loans to live off of, is it really feasible that I would be able to volunteer in unpaid leadership activities?

You might think that my highly involved schedule is an anomaly and that most students do far less while in college, but this points to an unspoken truth about student leadership. The students who are highly involved are the students who can afford to be. Whether it is the privilege to have regular financial support from family or to have them back your loans, this is what makes it possible for me to hold multiple leadership positions at once. Research has indicated that although access to a college education has increased, success in higher education is stagnant — particularly among people of color and lower income students (Brock, 2010). With work study cuts, the possibility for struggling students to get involved is further diminished. Students who are not so lucky are being cheated out of the all of the amazing opportunities that their school offers — and their communities are being cheated out of the contributions those students would make.

Over the past four years I have had the pleasure of working with inspiring faculty and incredibly motivated peers. I admire all of the work they do and the passion with which they do it, but we can’t ignore that not all students have access to these professional development opportunities. After significant work study cuts at my university, I had to make difficult choices to give up unpaid work experience in order to allot more time to work. Realizing these types of decisions are part of adulthood, students shouldn’t be forced to choose between making rent and engaging in the types of opportunities our universities boast about. To mandate this choice is reinforcing the systems of inequity that keep a diverse student body only a dream and go against the mission of most schools. Colleges and universities must consider ways to fulfill their promises to all students — and that means being paid for work.

— Greta Diem ’17

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