Birth of the student employee

by Meg Cook

Opinion Contributor

“What is CPLD?” On occasion, I hear this question and have to think about it. The office of Campus Programming and Leadership Development was dissolved starting in the fall of 2014. Some of the responsibilities and resources were combined with that of Residence Life to create the one-stop shop most students now know as the office of Student Life. Luckily, in this same time frame, the Student Programming Board expanded their Executive Board to include weekend events, fitness programs, speakers, sponsored off-campus events, and Griff Flix–the majority of which used to be planned and executed by the employees of CPLD. Coincidence? Nope.

In the past couple of years, we have seen a shift in the source of student engagement on campus. The CPLD/SPB amalgam is one of many examples of this shift. Today, we see a clear reliance on students to engage their peers with supplemental aid from established offices on campus. There are benefits to this, of course. It makes sense to have students, fully aware of the needs and desires of a typical student on this campus, curate programs and opportunities to fulfill whatever is left to be desired from a Canisius experience. Students who choose to step into these roles gain valuable leadership experience and can take ownership in their contribution to the Canisius community. In terms of numbers, there are more available and willing students to spread the workload around. Many hands make light work. Clearly, this shift make for a better student experience for everyone… right?

Here’s the problem: students have been stepping into roles that used to be paid positions and are held to the same expectations as both an employee and a student. From a business standpoint, why should Canisius pay someone to do things that can be done by someone else who is A) willing to do it in the spirit of volunteerism, leadership, and commitment to the Canisius community and B) able to more easily identify needs of the student body due to their position within the community? The answer lies in the fact that both of these individuals are students, balancing different roles in relationship to other students. Comparing two students and their engagement with campus, one student is going to class, doing homework, perhaps working, (theoretically) sleeping, and participating in events on campus while another is doing all that the first is and planning those events. Both students are engaging in the campus culture, but there is a disparity in how they are each accomplishing that task.The first is solely student and the other is more employee than student. What is the quality of their experiences? The former of the two is able to participate while the other needs to anticipate the needs of their peers when planning.

For example, attending an event and attending an event that you planned and now have to work render completely different experiences. Whether or not each is positive or negative depend solely on the student. However, as tuition-paying students, isn’t it in the job description of any department on this Jesuit campus to care for the quality of the student experience as a whole? The disparity between student experiences reflects poorly on the Jesuit value of cura personalis we hold at our foundation for the Canisius student experience. In regards to the expectations of Student B, professionalism is a definite. It should be an assumption that when working with any established department on campus, professionalism and decorum are required. Frankly, it’s a good habit to get into. The boundary that is crossed more often than not is when the expectations of the office are more aligned with those most suited for an employee and not at all suited for a student. There are a couple examples where we can cross into employee territory. In many cases, hours devoted to student engagement efforts by a single student can stray into a range that could best be described as a part time job. And if we are tackling the concept of professionalism, when is a student considered an employee or a student? Students who find themselves in leadership positions experience the “fishbowl effect.” At all times, they are representing the office of campus in which they are engaged. A standard employee would expect at least a barrier between their personal and professional realms with the expectation that they are representatives of their employer, but with students there is no room for such luxury. “Student leaders” are always student leaders, but are they also student employees? Never just students.

My argument is not a call for action, but for reflection and assessment from all parties. Canisius College needs to evaluate the structure, stability, and fairness of a heavy reliance on students and their following expectations.

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