Orientation Leaders go on strike, declare unionization
Former Orientation Leaders list their demands for reforms needed before they are willing to return to the program.
Orientation Leaders drive the University’s incoming class’s experience on campus as resources and role models to first-years, guiding them through their busy Orientation programs. However, the extent of their involvement in welcoming new students to the community is more taxing than their cheerful dispositions let on. Instead, OLs report that Orientation is an exhaustive experience that has been undercompensated in past years, causing a group of OLs from the August 2022 Orientation to write a petition to the administration, declaring proportional pay to the extent of the work they dedicate to the program.
According to the Brandeis Department of Orientation and First-Year Experience, “Orientation Leaders are representatives of Brandeis University who assist new students in their transition to Brandeis University. OLs serve as role models and resources to incoming students and are provided opportunities to develop leadership skills, interact with students, faculty, staff & administrators, and learn more about the Brandeis community and its resources.”
However, it’s clear that isn’t the full story.
Following the August 2022 move-in and Orientation, former Orientation Leaders wrote a petition explaining that this description does not adequately describe the full extent of their work. Instead, it causes students to apply for work that has not been described in detail, failing to outline hours of breakless work, high physical and emotional demands, and low compensation. In their petition, the OLs highlight a variety of issues such as unfair compensation, extended hours, and lack of job transparency, as well as provide solutions to each of these problems. Included on the petition is an OL Pledge that explains that any OL who signs it agrees “to no longer sign up to be an OL until the University implements the demands and changes outlined in the Unionization Plan.”
The Unionization Plan’s writers — Tamara Rubin ’25, Edgar Garcia ’25, Jason Gordon ’24, and Marcus Sutton ’25 — met with the Justice on March 25 to talk about their experiences leading the 2022 Summer Orientation, their reasoning behind unionization, and how administrators have responded to their claims up to this point. Each student had a personal reason for becoming an Orientation Leader, whether it was to recreate their positive experience for incoming students and help integrate them into a community that had previously welcomed them, or to form more valuable connections with students and other OLs.
Sutton explained that Orientation is crucial to first-years because it provides them with the opportunity to create lasting friendships among one another and their OLs. “I appreciate the establishment of such connections,” Sutton said. Since “Brandeis is small, such connections are valuable because we’re going to be seeing each other all the time, I think fostering that nice sense of community as soon as you land on campus is so crucial to your success on campus — or your comfortability adjusting — and I wanted to be a part of that for the [next-year’s] students.”
Although they were passionate about joining the OL ranks in August 2022, none of them were entirely certain as to what their new job entailed. The job description explained some intricacies of helping new students transition into the Brandeis community, attending training and Orientation, and supporting the Orientation staff. However, most of the descriptions were brief. For example, “leaders are needed for certain roles which are always explained during training,” but this “training” was not explained in detail, either.
Rubin spoke about the short job descriptions, saying that she had no idea what she was getting into. “I knew we had training days and then Orientation would start, but I didn’t know what we’d be doing in training,” she said. The other three students agreed with her, each stating that they had a small idea of what they would need to do from what they experienced that previous year. But since Gordon’s Orientation was virtual due to the pandemic, he specified that he was only aware of the hours needed because he had to fit his training schedule with his job, but prior to that week, he did not know anything more.
Along with describing how they needed to go through the same series of presentations about the University’s resources — first for their training, second for Orientation — the students also explained that the OLs’ role in move-in day was not described, and because many of them did not receive assistance on their own move-in days, whether from the aftermath of a hurricane or due to the pandemic, they were unaware that part of their responsibility would be to physically help incoming students move their belongings into their dorms for hours on end.
Having to unexpectedly engage in strenuous effort was taxing for the Orientation Leaders: “seven strenuous hours of physical labor, carrying mini-fridges up three or four flights of stairs, it’s a lot. For some people, if they don’t know what they’re getting into, it’s a big ask,” Garcia said. The group also recounted that one OL suffered from heat exhaustion, since they each felt a shared burden to work fiercely the whole day to avoid feeling like they were slowing the group down.
Rubin described this sense of responsibility, saying that anytime she wanted to take a break she felt like she would be letting the rest of the group down and felt too guilty to do so. She described that the OLs formed a tight bond over that time, referring to it as a “survival” day centered around working together. “I don't like to bond through trauma, but I think that’s part of why we all feel so close,” Rubin said.
This intense physical labor also lasted throughout the rest of Orientation, a factor that pushed many OLs to burn out before their classes even began. The group expressed that between the densely-packed Orientation schedules and mandatory evening events, they had little to no time to unpack their own belongings or prepare for their classes. Sutton even said that he struggled to find time to go grocery shopping during the Orientation period, and it took him four days to gradually settle his things in between his responsibilities. He called it a “rinse and repeat” cycle where they would start the day at seven in the morning and end it around midnight, having to spend extended hours preparing for the next day’s events.
“You’re [running] through Orientation, and then you hit classes immediately, and you have to transition from doing everything at once for ten days and then adjusting to the social situation and class,” Gordon said, describing how it felt to adjust from a busy Orientation schedule to then having to start classes without a break in between those. Furthermore, Rubin said that she had no time to attend to work that her professors assigned before the first day of classes. She recalled having to email her professors about how she could not do her classwork and explained how she felt unprepared without proper time to look at her syllabi, either.
The OLs interviewed explained that being an Orientation Leader was also emotionally draining, given that they had to keep their groups of first-years — “grouplets” — in high spirits, while they, in turn, were beginning to burn out from the tight schedule. Gordon described how one of his grouplets slowly declined in attendance because they were exhausted from being on a full schedule and in a new atmosphere with no time to explore on their own.
The morale steadily declined in the first-years and OLs during Orientation, which culminated at the Museum of Science trip — where most of the attendees left early. “We were on our feet the whole time, and you could just tell by the end of it. At the Museum of Science, the OLs were so dead,” Rubin recalled. “I think that added to why the grouplets didn’t find it very fun or interesting, because we were all dead, so we couldn’t really hype anyone up. We didn’t have anything left in us.”
Another concern that the students emphasized was for all of their physical and emotional labor, they felt their work was not reflected in their compensation. In their petition, they described that they were given a $250 stipend, no offset of Community Living’s early arrival fee, and 19 meals for the training period — five fewer than needed to attend all required meals with their grouplets. They found that the monetary equivalent of using all 19 of these meals, deducting the early move-in fee, is $460. In comparison, the OLs had to work 56 hours over a span of six days for training and another 40 hours of work over the four Orientation days. Giving Orientation Leaders $460 for 96 hours of work equates to about $4.80 per hour, which is less than one-third of Massachusetts’ minimum wage and below the federal minimum wage.
Rubin clarified how compensating students minimally for intensive work leads to exploitation. “One of the main issues we point out in the document is what leads to the exploitation and the overworking is when you’re not being paid hourly, or when your pay is very low. It turns into a treatment of volunteering without the option.”
Gordon said that he mentioned their compensation concerns in a meeting with the Andrea Dine, vice president of Student Affairs and an individual from the Orientation Leader Core, and he explained that their general response was that the job was primarily a leadership position that students should sign up for out of passion for the work, rather than compensation. However, Gordon expressed his disdain for that reply, stating, “I should be able to want to do the job, and I should be able to want to be adequately compensated for the work that I put in. [Expecting] that I should do it out of pure passion and expect not to get much for it is ludicrous.” He also mentioned that expecting students to become OLs because the work is meaningful to them is exclusive, because it assumes that all students have the financial stability to take on long hours of work without needing strong pay to sustain them. Gordon said that he needed to coordinate his OL training with his job because he needed the money for his part-time job to pay for his off campus housing.
The Unionization Plan expands on the job accessibility, saying that higher pay could “lead to a more diverse cohort of leaders as a byproduct.” The petition echoes the University’s Mission and Diversity Statement, saying that its concept of diversity being “crucial to academic excellence” should be reflective within the group of students who act as leaders to the incoming class.
Gordon said that he also met with Laura Flynn, the director of Orientation and First-year Experience, and Shelby Harris, the assistant vice president of Student Engagement and Campus Life, along with Dine. He said that they each emphasized that they were new to their positions — Harris joined Brandeis in 2021 and Dine began her current job this semester — rather than responding to the OLs’ compensation concerns. However, he learned that allocation for the OLs’ payment does not come from the University directly — instead, it comes from the sum of first-years’ extra Orientation fee. Although Gordon said Flynn seemed unwilling to change the way OLs are paid, he acknowledged that she agreed with some of the petition’s other claims.
Sutton outlined that some of the changes Flynn is considering for next year’s Orientation address their conditions surrounding the OLs’ unnecessary tasks, long hours, and role in move-in. Flynn told Sutton that there would be a new online training for first-years to complete before coming to campus, which would avoid making the OLs sit through the same presentations about campus resources twice, as well as make Orientation more efficient. He also explained that she is planning a new system to implement breaks between their programs during the day and night events, as well as only making one night event mandatory per OL to give them more personal time and shorter work days. Lastly, they discussed a new move-in Crew system, which would be made up of undergraduate students who moved to campus early. In exchange for covering the early move-in fees, they would have to help OLs move the first-years’ belongings into their dorms, giving them two and a half hour shifts. Sutton said that they could not agree in terms of OLs’ roles on move-in day; while the group believes move-in day is not a part of Orientation and not OLs’ responsibility, Flynn disagrees.
While the group acknowledges that these are steps in the right direction, the OLs are determined to continue pressuring the University to fairly compensate Orientation Leaders. “We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that [this initiative] doesn’t keep getting shut down, because every four years there is a new batch of students at the University. We need to make sure we don’t forget about this movement and we continue doing it, so we’re not here again in four years,” Rubin said.
After all, the group clarified that they are not pushing for these changes out of malice towards Orientation itself or only for themselves. Garcia explained how, while they love and appreciate Orientation, that does not mean they are unable to point out its flaws and push for change. “We’re doing this because we love Orientation, ultimately. And just because we love Orientation doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, so we’re ready to go public with [this]. We know that our message will touch the hearts of many Brandeis students,” he said.
Their petition has already garnered notable support with 77 signatures from students, current OLs, and alumni, showing that the need for change is already well-supported. Sutton spoke about how receiving alumni support is significant: “It’s a testament to this feeling being not limited to this Orientation … Like if people feel the need to sign this, having already graduated, it’s not a good thing,” he said. Sutton expressed that they want this cause to be more emphasized within the community to show the University that the OLs’ treatment is a noteworthy problem that is deserving of attention. “If this hits the right people, I feel like we’ll start getting the answers that we want, the change that we want, and I feel like this added exposure will definitely contribute to that,” he said.
Rubin emphasized that they are pushing this change for the good of the whole community and the future of Orientation, as the petition explains how undercompensated and overworked Orientation Leaders are unlikely to do the program again, leading to a shortage in OLs in the proceeding years. “We love Orientation, and we all did it because we were passionate about welcoming people into the community that we felt so welcomed,” she said. “Our hopes are for people to feel good about Orientation and for it to be considered something all people at Brandeis should be able to do as part of a leadership opportunity … It’s still an experience we want people in the future to enjoy and have the right goals come out of it.”