In light of recent discussion about rising room and board costs, I can’t help but think about the College’s restrictions to internship wages and how it connects to the greater campus. Four years ago, when I was a bright-eyed freshman, I began my first internship at the Geographic Information Systems Program. I was excited about the unique work experiences that it offered, as well as the pay rate, which was (and still is) considered the highest of all campus-based internships—the coveted $14. After spending several years at the lab, though, myself and other students realized that something wasn’t adding up with the pay rates.
As an intern, the work I performed involved analyzing highly confidential data—to maintain employment required numerous background checks and logins monitored by government employees. Along with that, my pay was coming from the GIS Lab, which is unique in that the brunt of its financial support comes not from Washington College, but from outside sources, such as government grants and business contracts. Considering the specialized nature of my work and the control the lab had over its earnings, it was disappointing to me that the average GIS intern would only reach pay rates of about $10-$12 an hour over their entire college career.
When I asked the lab about these rates, I was told something rather appalling: if student interns earned above that $14 cut-off, our rates would be better than full-time staff (I’m not the first nor last person to hear this, nor is the GIS lab the only employer to have said this). Let me quantify how absurd this is: in 2017, Maryland’s poverty line for a family of four stood at about $24,600 (source: The People’s Law Library of MD), meaning that a full-time staff member working 35 to 40 hours a week and earning what is considered the maximum internship payrate would barely crest this line by about $1,000-$5,000. Now, let me bring the effects of that five-digit number to life through the dining hall staff.
Over the past four years, I’ve witnessed incredible staff turnover, as well as increasing pressure on remaining staff. I’ve discussed this with staff members and have found that many were unable to financially deal with unexpected expenses, medical bills, and repairs. People will argue that staff shouldn’t expect more, that this kind of work should be “cheap,” but the work that goes into Buildings & Grounds, housekeeping, and the dining hall are all vital to campus life. As students, we can’t complain about the quality of food or the cleanliness of our buildings when the staff can’t attain a better quality of life. All in all, the conditions that the staff deal with, along with the lack of autonomy by on-campus internship supervisors, is disappointing.
I know so much more can be done with these issues, but I’m not naïve—I know money is sparse right now, as evidenced by the College raising room and board rates. On the other hand, the purpose of the rising costs felt vague and the College has a tendency of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on non-academic events, like spring rock concerts. I often wonder if the College is truly doing what is not only fiscally best, but what is best long-term for our staff and students.
Casey Williams, senior