Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Blueprint for Action

Informed by a survey distributed to all of the EDI intern teams that had a 50% response rate, I have developed a series of actionable recommendations in order to improve the intern role and student agency within it.

Despite feeling that in this role, their labor was compensated fairly for the most part, student interns did not feel appreciated by Harvard or believe that their roles matter to Harvard at large. Further, a general consensus amongst student interns reveals that they perceive little ability to effect change above the level of their office. 

The resulting policy recommendations are as follows:
Student intern responses to the question "Without taking Harvard's response to the COVID-19 pandemic into consideration, how fairly do you think Harvard compensates you for your labor?"
In order to further EDI-related goals at Harvard, one of the best initiatives the College should consider is the compensation of other students putting in labor to further EDI goals. For example, the students organizing the FYRE pre-orientation program, which uplifts first-generation and low-income students, went unpaid and then underpaid for many months. At present, the group of students running FYRE is still not paid hourly, and many who do work for FYRE are not paid at all.

It would not be overly difficult or costly for the College to institute some sort of program that compensates students for EDI-related work. A streamlined application process could determine which student organizations were eligible for funding. Paying 2 student leaders of 20 student groups doing EDI-related work for 10 hours a week at a rate of $15 per hour would cost the College only $60,000 for a 10-week semester. 

Based on changes to EDI work during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear the importance of compensating student laborers doing EDI-related work. Student responses about how fairly their labor has been compensated given Harvard's COVID-19 response were starkly different, which can largely been because intern hours were cut from 10 hours per week to 3 hours per week. Students commented that this has resulted in them doing significantly more unpaid labor for the institution. Anecdotally, this has been the case for me too – my workload at the QuOffice has decreased slightly, but I am now doing a lot of unpaid labor because I exceed my hourly limit every week through calling admitted students, having meetings about ongoing projects, policy changes, etc.

Student intern responses to the question "Taking Harvard's response to the COVID-19 pandemic into account, how fairly do you think Harvard has compensated you for your labor?"
The decision-making process outside of the office where a given student intern works is opaque, and this seems to be a source of frustration amongst interns. As one intern described, "all levels of power higher than our assistant director function as a black box." This sentiment was echoed by other interns who expressed limited ability to interact with administrators outside of the office within which they work. Another manifestation of this phenomenon was apparent through a general lack of clarity about whether or not interns think the role has given them a greater ability to influence Harvard as compared to advocating for change as an independent student – only 23% of students said that they felt that the role gave them a greater ability to change the status quo.

Intern responses to the question "Do you think you have greater ability to change the status quo as an intern in an EDI Office compared to advocating for EDI-related causes as an independent student?"
If it is the case that student interns have greater ability to influence Harvard through these roles, interns have suggested a few strategies in order to make this more clear. The first would be to give student interns more consistent meetings and otherwise increase face-to-face interactions between student employees and higher-ups, such as Deans, in Harvard's administration. The second would be to increase transparency and communication with student interns about how and why decisions are made above the level of the office within which they work. Based on survey results, limited transparency in decision-making results in student workers assuming that they have limited or no influence in administrative decisions outside of their individual office's scope. Communicating administrative decisions in greater detail would allow student interns to see where their voices are being represented, if at all.

More involvement in the decision-making process could make interns feel more needed by the institution, as well. The survey reveals that at present, interns largely feel unneeded, or as one intern put it, "symbolic" for the University. Another intern commented, "it seems like we're not really meant to interact with [higher-level administrators] at all even though we work for them." Some perceived a lack of trust from administrators as the cause of this phenomenon, to which one intern responded, "we want to feel like trusted thought partners so we can do our job better."

Student intern responses to the question "How much do you believe Harvard's administration depends on you?"
Recent literature about student agency in institutional decision-making suggests various models of student involvement in the decision-making process, with a model of student/staff partnership perhaps being optimal for preserving student agency (Healy et al., 2014). Interns were asked what they consider the nature of interactions between students and administrators to be, with 30% of respondents saying that they perceive student interns and administrators to act as partners in the decision-making process.

Intern responses to the question "In the decision-making process, what do you perceive the relationship between you as a student and administrators to be?"
These results show significant room for improvement in the decision-making process, so that student interns feel like partners instead of considerations in the decision-making process. This could look like more frequent meetings with students soliciting input, or student interns working alongside administrators from start to finish on a given event, program, or initiative. These results could also be related to how often students see their visions implemented in the work of the office, the answer to which is around 60% of the time. 

Intern responses to the question "How often do you think your viewpoints and opinions are taken into account in the context of the work done by your office?"
Another untapped potential in the internship program is the possibility of cross-office collaboration, events, and socials. At present this only happens occasionally. Many interns named finding a community of individuals who shared similar passions as something that drew them to the role or turned out to be one of the strongest parts of the intern program. This can be increased and expanded through greater collaboration between intern teams, which will also emphasize the importance of intersectionality. As is, the separation of offices creates distance between certain parts of an individual's identity – for example, the Office of BGLTQ Student Life does programming related to the intersection of race and sexuality, but there remains an administrative distinction between the office designated to address issues of race and the office designated to address issues of sexuality. 

Closing Thoughts

The decision-making structure of the EDI branches is decentralized and complicated, and implementing these recommendations is far from guaranteed. That said, this project has offered unique insight into how interns perceive their role and what they have identified as sources of improvement. The full paper will be released in the coming weeks, and will go into greater detail about the results from this research project.

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