Interview: Undergraduate student workers at CMU

Note: Names have been changed at students' request. Interviews were conducted in the fall 2021 semester.

At Carnegie Mellon, the undergraduate and graduate student minimum wage is $8.25 an hour. For federal work-study positions, undergraduate student positions are capped at $12 an hour, while graduate student positions are capped at $16 an hour. Last spring, the Undergraduate Student Senate published a white paper outlining the issues experienced among student workers, such as the stark differences between how Carnegie Mellon teaching assistants (TAs) are compensated in comparison to our peer institutions.

Over a year after the white paper’s publication, student work and how U.S. colleges and universities value it continues to be a point of contention. This academic year alone, graduate students from Harvard and Columbia led several strikes demanding better contracts and increased health benefits. Within undergraduate schools, being a student is distinctly different from being a worker; while the roles aren’t mutually exclusive, some students never hold a job on or off campus.

Nonetheless, the motto at Carnegie Mellon is that our students "have their hearts in the work." Undergraduate student work is encouraged across numerous university departments and is advertised around campus and on Handshake. Finding work on campus is convenient, and the experience is valuable for a resume.

However, considering the wages Carnegie Mellon offers and the work culture across campus, is student work being valued for the integral role it plays in keeping the university afloat? The Tartan was able to connect with six undergraduate student workers with varying experiences and relationships with their on-campus employment.

Jesse (he/him), fourth-year:

Jesse has been working as a Carnegie Mellon photographer since his first year on campus. To him, holding multiple photography positions is a matter of paying the bills. This semester, he juggled several on-campus jobs on top of Carnegie Mellon academics and external freelance work. These jobs, like all student positions offered on campus, pay by the hour. Paying an hourly wage for photography, however, is far from the industry norm.

“Photography labor is hard to translate,” he shared. “It’s not as simple as every hour you work can directly translate to the final product. I can take photos for two hours and get 300 to 500 images, and then spend two hours editing. That’s four hours of work for hundreds of images, which in the industry you’d be paid around 150 or 300 dollars for.”

The expectation for student photographers, Jesse noted, is industry-level; but at Carnegie Mellon, events that could make well over $300 if freelanced amount to about $60 with a $12-an-hour wage. His positions as an underclassman were even worse, as they started at $9 and $10 an hour.

“There is not a single photographer in the industry that would accept that as pay, ever,” he said. “I’m doing the jobs of salaried individuals but they’re just outsourcing it to students because it’s cheaper.”

On top of an inherent misunderstanding of how to compensate student photographers, the nature of photography work is not consistent. Photography on campus is heavily dependent on factors such as weather and the number of students physically on campus. Furthermore, the cap on how many hours a student can work per week also does not translate well with the demands of photography.

“I can work a max of 10 hours a week, with a minimum of 35 images which becomes a weird quota system. I’ll either go drastically under or over the hour cap,” he shared. “It’s difficult to have [campus photography] as a steady income stream when this is offered as a work-study job.”

As Jesse nears the end of his Carnegie Mellon experience, another concern becomes prevalent as a photographer: ownership or rights over the content he creates. Whether or not he has true ownership or control over how images are used after he graduates is unknown. All of these factors interplaying create an overall exploitative student worker experience, Jesse shared.

“I am forced to sell myself short. I would like to work with the university, but they’re definitely benefiting from my labor by an absurd ratio.” Balancing two jobs and freelancing with Carnegie Mellon academics is an impressive feat. It does not come without its challenges, Jesse notes. He has to tell his professors, for example, that sometimes his work needs to take precedence over school work. Furthermore, the inconsistent nature of photography work means sometimes, there are weeks where he is not making money at all.

“I would love to focus more on my school work but I can’t focus on academics if I don’t pay my bills. That’s my heat, hot water, Wi-Fi, everything,” Jesse said. “We've created an environment where students like me are not able to get consistent work that pays well, so I’m doing as much menial labor as possible for what ends up being not enough money.”

For Jesse, the solution to his predicament is not solely an increase of the campus minimum wage to $15 an hour. Specific to photography, Jesse emphasized that consistent hours are just as important as receiving a higher wage. On the broader scale of student work at Carnegie Mellon, he noted that there needs to be a readjustment between weekly caps or quotas and actual hours worked per week. All of this is inherently connected to how the university takes the labor of student workers for granted.

“Without student workers, the university would crumble,” he said.

Ben (he/him), third-year:

Over his years at Carnegie Mellon, Ben has worked as a TA for numerous courses across different departments, holding positions from leading recitation classes to being a grader.

“I’m privileged and taking on jobs isn’t a matter of survival,” he said. Workload, he explained, is a matter of college, department, and even the course itself. Being a TA can be as rewarding as leading a recitation to as tedious as being solely a grader. Unlike other on-campus jobs, he shared, TAing can mean as little as four hours of work a week. As a grader, Ben did not necessarily have an excessive workload. However, the popular opinion within the student body has been that TAs are overworked, often under-logging their hours.

“The maximum hours to log in [the School of Computer Science] is theoretically 20 hours; you could log more, but you would have to be eligible for benefits,” Ben said. “I imagine Head TAs may have issues with the hour cap.”

Though the positions Ben has been in paid him between $11 and $13, TA positions are not a source of necessary income for him. Ben spoke to The Tartan about the power of a TA position as a means of networking within engineering and computer science spaces.

“It’s great for your resume and you get the chance to interact with professors, and for me that’s important considering grad school,” Ben explained. “But TAing is less about the direct money that comes with it, and more about potential opportunities down the road and being connected to different administrative people and faculty around CMU.”
These hidden benefits that come with TAing, Ben explained, risk pricing out people on the lower end of the income spectrum.

“TAs are not being paid as much, but they’re connecting with smart peers, administrators and professors which helps their resumes and potentially their careers,” he said. “It should be something that is equitable.”

Another problem, as also expressed by the Senate white paper, is that each school has different hiring procedures for TAs. The hiring process can range from a document saying how many hours the job is to a formal contract. Solutions to this from the Student Hourly Employment Working Group, however, are closer to fruition than not. The issue, then, is back to how we compensate students.

“There’s decent money, but at the same time, it varies by department. If you’re a grad TA, you're getting paid a lot more just by the nature of the program. I have a friend who was a Head TA, but now teaches as a grad student and is being paid a lot more,” Ben said. “I think in terms of work as compensated labor, I think that the university can do more.”

Steven (he/him), third-year:

Steven is a resident assistant (RA) with Campus Housing, a position he really enjoys. For Steven, being an RA is an opportunity for some extra money, as he receives significant financial aid from Carnegie Mellon. Particularly with first-year residents, Steven notes that being an RA is hard work.

A common theme across campus employment is the inconsistencies of a position across schools, departments, and in this case, residence. As an RA for first-year housing, Steven has to hold events once or twice a week, often around his already hectic schedule.

“Tuesdays and Wednesdays are when I’m busy, so I do an event Thursday, which makes all three days busy,” he explained. “An RA’s workload, from my understanding, largely depends on your Housefellow and [Community Advisor], too. In some circumstances, this can make the job inequitable across houses.”

With the transition back to in-person classes, campus life has been difficult for Steven. On top of his usual roles, he dealt with the balance between a demand for more engaging residential activities and the need to follow COVID-19 guidelines. From food guidelines to mask requirements, the RA position has expanded in the face of a pandemic.

“It’s a little uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m supposed to remain amicable with my residents, so when I tell them to wear masks, sometimes it doesn’t happen.”

Some improvements, Steven noted, that would benefit himself and other RAs include introducing clarity on salary increases or decreases, transparency in costs across different residences, and a minimum wage or salary increase. With the time and energy Steven has to dedicate in his role, he wishes the pay was a little better for RAs.

“The RA salary is just enough to pay for housing. It’s not enough for dining,” Steven said of his experience. “I was lucky enough to have my meal plan covered by my financial aid, but that’s not the case for all RAs.”

Steven recognizes that there are RAs in worse situations than he is, struggling to make ends meet and struggling with academics from Carnegie Mellon.

Charlie (they/them), fourth-year:

Charlie has been a TA across numerous courses within SCS for eight semesters — most notable is their role in two common SCS courses. Charlie has faced all sides of the TA coin in their time working for SCS, from being severely overworked to finding joy and camaraderie with their fellow students.

At first, becoming a TA was a matter of explicitly needing an income. For their first semester TAing, they needed the money, especially before having found internships.

“It was not easy because I had to budget money I made and budget for internships applications,” they said. “The pressure is there if you’re not from an affluent family.”

Specifically for courses within SCS, TAing is not always about survival. Being a TA can mean a pipeline to an internship for the summer, meaningful connections with professors, or a way to find enjoyment in hands-on teaching. While these aspects all benefit a teaching and learning environment, they often present themselves as invisible barriers for other students who may have, if given the opportunity, applied to be a TA.

“People who are first-gen or low-income often don’t have the opportunity to advance [in computer science knowledge] before coming to CMU,” Charlie explained. “CMU SCS has a huge background problem; at least 25 percent of students have minimal or no CS experience with the expectation to do well at CMU. They’re told that everyone is equal, but find out that’s not the case.”

Other than the phenomena that Charlie calls “the background problem,” TA wages makes the opportunity even more inequitable. Throughout eight semesters, Charlie has been paid as little as $11 an hour and as much as $14 an hour — which is only the case because of current high inflation rates. This, coupled with more-than-common instances of overworking, can make TAing a stressful experience.

“Overtime work is common if you take TA-ing seriously,” Charlie said. “You can spend up to 25 or 30 hours a week making sure the course runs smoothly because professors can put a lot of pressure on the TAs.”

Charlie remembers their second semester of one of the classes they were a TA for fondly — especially one night in particular in which they held office hours for seven hours, breaking a class record. Besides that anomaly, they usually hold office hours that are two to three hours long, two to three times a week. The shifts end between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on paper, but when office hours go overtime, they finds themself helping out at office hours up to 12 a.m., or worse, 1 or 2 a.m.

“CMU is hard already without TAing a class where you’re holding office hours for 6 hours. I actually dropped a class for TA-ing because I couldn’t balance,” they shared.

The work culture of TAing a particular class, Charlie shared, is dictated by the professor and how highly they emphasize wellbeing. For example, after working excessive hours for one course, Charlie was temporarily banned from holding office hours for the sake of their wellbeing. On the other hand, some courses face severe under-staffing issues on top of a disengaged professor.

“When TAing for [a popular SCS course], we spent so much time trying to modify course policy with no head TAs,” Charlie said. “The course load was unequally split among TAs and it became my life — that’s why I quit.”

On paper, TAs are not allowed to work over 20 hours a week. Yet many TAs — Charlie included — still go over that limit. This, and the low TA wages at Carnegie Mellon, leads to TAs often moving their overtime hours to less-busy weeks and overestimating their work for the extra income. The work culture present for TAs, and at the university in general, is connected to the inherent elitism of the institution.

“CMU [SCS] TA’s are so overwhelmed, and it’s connected to the fact that SCS admits students without giving them the proper support or community,” Charlie shared. “Not having a community really impacts your studies.”

Seth (he/him), fourth-year student

Seth, a senior in Dietrich College, has worked across various departments over his time at Carnegie Mellon. For the sake of anonymity, these departments will not be identified. Seth has held jobs within the pay range of $8.25- to $13- an-hour, which as someone originally from outside of Pennsylvania, was a surprise within itself.

“I’m from an area where the minimum wage is much higher. It was shocking for me to move to Pittsburgh because the pay is so low for so many jobs,” he said. “It was difficult for me to wrap my head around it.”

In his first job, one that he has held for over three years, Seth has been treated the best. This department in particular, he shared, provided TAs with significant guidance and decent pay.

“I feel very comfortable going to my supervisor, should I ever have an issue completing work,” Seth shared. “If I ever struggled academically, or with illness or time commitments, I feel I can tell my supervisor and they’d be understanding.”

A second job from another department, however, did not give Seth this sort of support — causing him to leave. Not only was the pay not as good as his first job, but the workload was up to 10 hours a week, which was beyond Seth’s availability. Furthermore, the professor he was working with was not nearly as supportive. “There wasn’t as much guidance in terms of rubrics we were given to grade student submissions. I felt less confident about the grades I was giving.”

TAing as a whole, Seth notes, can be made more equitable. Recruitment and application processes in particular, he shared, could open opportunities for more students from different backgrounds to apply.

“I had the confidence and comfort to apply for TA positions. The fact that I knew these positions existed is also a privilege; you have to know or be invited to seek these positions,” he said. “[Applying to a TA position] requires students to be comfortable navigating this predominantly white infrastructure, to be perceived as competent. People from different backgrounds might have different ideas of how to display competence.”

It starts from the beginning, when students are in a class that may offer TA positions in the first place, Seth explained. He shared how students from low-income backgrounds may be less inclined to seek help from office hours, and, without having formed connections with the professor, you can’t make an impression as someone who would be a good candidate for the position. “TA advertising can be made more equitable,” Seth said. “For example, all applications can be on Handshake, or applications can be vetted to prevent possible discrimination or favoritism.”

Another flaw of Carnegie Mellon student jobs that Seth noted was differing budgets among schools and departments. His third job was with a less-funded department, meaning he was paid exactly Carnegie Mellon minimum wage, $8.25. This position, luckily, had less time commitment so he does not mind the pay and recognizes it is likely due to the funding of the department itself. "I work maybe two hours a week, depending on the load,” Seth said of this position. “It’s not a lot of hours and could never be my only job.”

Overall, Seth feels fortunate to be a student worker, and to have been able to be employed by the university once his academics were under control. His positions this academic year are manageable and he is able to make them work around his academics. “I’ve been lucky with my jobs. I didn’t feel that they contributed to stress,” Seth concluded. “There’s a stress culture that exists at CMU, I’m just lucky enough to have it be less pressing.”

Jamie (they/them), fourth-year:

Through Jamie’s studies at CFA, work-study positions have been about survival. They have taken up to four jobs a semester to support themself and their family. From bills to medicine, Jamie has become the lifeline for their family and to them, jobs are just as much about gaining experience as they are about getting by. Jamie started seeking on-campus employment late in their first year and early sophomore year.

Jamie’s first job was within childcare services, as their passions are in teaching young children. As a teacher in Carnegie Mellon-associated childcare services, Jamie also had to influence the motor and linguistic development of children they worked with. Furthermore, though they are nonbinary, Jamie acknowledges that they were perceived as a woman by their employers and outsiders. In childcare, Jamie shared, women and potentially nonbinary people are undervalued — both these factors made this job very strenuous for a student worker.

“For such a fancy school, I did not get treated well to be honest. I’m someone struggling with mental illness and physical ailments that really affect my body,” which affected their job, Jamie shared. “Sometimes it's hard to get out of bed; and yet the [employers and other teachers] were mean, even when I said I was running five minutes late ahead of time.”

Though Jamie signed up for a teaching experience within childcare services, they soon realized that there were invisible responsibilities attached to their employment. Working seven hours a week getting paid minimum wage became too much for a busy student like Jamie.

“If a child was having a problem, I had to take care of them on my own. A student worker doing that on their own is not the best idea, especially if teachers are trained to work with these children,” they shared. “Every little mistake was picked apart. I was doing tasks that no one wanted to do, like washing dishes, cleaning [up] after children.”

With this strenuous on-campus job, along with other positions and academics, Jamie struggled taking care of themself. They lost their footing in class, lost relationships with people, and were no longer as involved with clubs as they would have liked. At a certain point, Jamie’s parents did not like that they were losing so much over on campus jobs. After not receiving a raise on their campus childcare position, Jamie left. “Money is such a sensitive subject matter,” they said. “My parents did not like my jobs and the fact that I had to take up all these positions. I don't want to tell them how I get treated in these jobs.”

“I don’t think [the School of Arts] professors understand what it is like to be a working-class student,” Jamie said. “Even if you're a full-ride student, that doesn't erase the problem of having to pay rent, get your own medicine and groceries, and provide for your family. In my Asian culture, I am expected to look after my parents and elders.”

Jamie’s second on-campus job was within CFA’s printmaking services. Here, they faced a new predicament: having someone who is involved with your academics as a boss. It is a precarious position to be in, Jamie shared; there was discomfort and awkwardness when their employers would notice they would show up for work, but not for class.

On top of the discomfort of having your advisor or professor as a boss, Jamie was also in the position of working in an under-staffed office. Like many other entities across campus, printmaking had a labor shortage. “We cannot even do our jobs properly at the print shop as many students are printing photos with the pressure of [fall 2021’s] shortened semester,” Jamie said. “A lot of us are spread thin. It’s usually nine people in the print shop, but [in the fall], there [were] three or four of us.”

Labor shortages within Carnegie Mellon, Jamie speculates, are connected to the pandemic and students realizing their worth. “I think a lot of students are sick and tired of minimum-wage jobs,” they explained. “Since the pandemic, people’s financial situation has worsened, including mine. Then, people learned about boundaries and respect, which means they leave their jobs.”

Jamie’s experience with campus employment, they feel, is connected to a bigger problem at Carnegie Mellon: a lack of investment in student well-being, whether it’s University Health Services or Counseling and Psychological Services. Though these issues are being addressed in the new Highmark Center for Health, Wellness, and Athletics, Jamie will not be able to enjoy those benefits, as they are graduating. While any improvement of the student minimum wage would have been good for their situation, they expressed that it would have to be “drastic” for their life as a Carnegie Mellon student to have significantly changed. “I feel hopeless about the situation. It’s my last year here, and I just want to get out,” Jamie said. “‘Our heart is in the work,’ but we can’t believe that if you’re not willing to respect our hearts literally being in the work.”

Throughout the academic year, I have served on the Hourly Student Employment Working Group as AY21–22 Student Body Vice President. I want to acknowledge my role, and the amazing efforts of the working group, in the overall mission to improve the student worker experience. As Student Body Vice President, it is my responsibility to communicate those experiences to administrators. I can only hope this article plays a part in doing that, and that this piece can be informative in the long term.

The area the working group and many advocacy efforts across campus tend to focus on are efforts to improve student working conditions within the TA experience. This article has brought to my attention that improvements to TA wages overall without acknowledging the invisible barriers in recruitment, application, and retention will be not be as effective as they could be.

Lastly, this article has highlighted that the fight for better student minimum wages is not just a matter of matching our peer institutions: it is a matter of student well-being. As someone who had previously juggled three on-campus jobs on top of being a full-time student, the wage as it stands is unacceptable. At least, with the working group, there is now institutional awareness of this unacceptable wage. I sincerely look forward to their continued work next academic year and hope that their effort brings forth real change to campus.

If there is anything I must communicate to the working group upon my departure, it is that recommendations for minimum wage increase, particularly for undergraduates, need to be bold. In their white paper, the Undergraduate Student Senate recommended a gradual increase to $11-an-hour — I sincerely hope that this is the outcome.