The UT Dallas Peer Advisors, or PAs, are a large, permanent presence at our university, providing advice, enforcing rules, and attempting to give a little bit of guidance to living on campus. They are probably among the very first people you ever met at the start of your collegiate experience.
The Peer Advisors have a unique situation in their employment: if they lose their job, it means not only a loss of income, but also a loss of residence. They are kicked out of their apartment if their job is terminated. This means the Residential Life office, which runs the PA program, has a large amount of power over their student employees, who are often totally dependent on their job. Consider how much impact being fired could have on a student’s life and academic career- especially since many of these PAs don’t have nearby family to fall back on.
There is a standing rule for the Peer Advisors forbidding them from discussing their job with any body outside of Residential Life. While there are some legitimate reasons for this, the result of this rule is that the sources used for this article had to remain completely anonymous just to be able to speak about their job without fear of termination. Therefore, much like Law and Order, the situations discussed are deliberately kept vague to protect the innocent.
The organization has reportedly had a few troubles recently. According to anonymous sources, the students unanimously agreed upon a proposal that would change the nature of rounds, a requirement of the job where two PAs at a time are scheduled to patrol the entirety of the freshman areas of campus on lookout for rule infringements, safety concerns, or anything suspicious. Rounds would have changed from the current format to a new approach where each PA would patrol their own building everyday. The reasoning was said to be that the same work would get done, but at the cost of a few minutes per day, rather than a few hours per week. It was apparently also felt that this would increase the sense of responsibility each PA had for their building and their area. A counter proposal from Residential Life, allegedly changed most of the students’ proposals and effectively increased the amount of time spent on rounds. “It seemed like they decided to keep upping the ante enough that we would back down. Which is essentially what we did” described one PA.
The disciplinary process for the PAs is also a source of frustration. While there are certain offenses that supposedly guarantee a PA to lose their job, the coordinators actually appear to have a large amount of leeway in determining punishment for infractions.
The reported justification for this leeway is to ensure a “spectrum of options” that the coordinators can take as they see fit. The result, however, is allegations of favoritism and personal relationships having a large influence over what happens to a PA. There are rumors of people getting away with things as dire as underage drinking without anything more than a stern lecture, while something as trivial as losing the phone for a few minutes gets met with termination.
The PAs have a large amount of responsibility over their fellow students. With such high stakes—both for students and PAs themselves—ensuring that each PA is as prepared as possible for their job is an obvious necessity. The application process and the weeklong training all PAs go through is designed towards training the formal duties of a Peer Advisor: the paperwork, the rules and regulations, etc. The PAs also do an exercise where veteran PAs act out these kinds of situations for the new Advisors to get some limited experience.
The majority of the job was described as something that can’t really be prepared for, just experienced. However, there are complaints that PA training has become more and more about building a family-esque bond rather than job preparation.
Secondly, there are claims that the PAs are taking care of things on the job that they don’t receive training or compensation for. These include assistance with maintenance work, passing out flyers for an entire apartment phase on their own time, or being “highly encouraged” to assist with resident move in… and then not readily offered any compensation should they strain or injure themselves during the move in process.
The first month during resident move in was described as the make-it-or-break-it time, and after that the job gets a bit more routine. Time management was stressed as one of the biggest skills that a good PA needs in order to be able to handle the various demands of the job. These include being readily available for their residents, being on call should anyone phone Residential Life, and rounds. A PA is usually able to schedule school work and personal life around their job, but all of them live with the assumption that their plans can be overridden at any moment.
The PAs are given the opportunity to continue their job over the summer. Unfortunately, the summer pay was reportedly half the amount of the regular school year (so the student was essentially paying to do their job, since their salary no longer covered the cost of rent), there was three times as much work that needed to be done (since there were far fewer people to split up the load), and not as much time to do it (since the PAs usually had to pick up another job just to get the rent paid). While this issue is supposed to be addressed for the 2011 summer, the fact that it was around for so long is indicative of an organizational framework that is unresponsive to the PAs’ needs and requests.
Normally, an organization’s internal affairs are its own, and if it decides it needs to focus on team building and morale, it’s no one else’s business. This family atmosphere might seem like a great thing, but think for a bit about the ongoing train wreck that is a usual family, and all of a sudden this complicated mixture of student employment, volunteerism, and informal camaraderie shows a slightly darker edge. Team building is a perfectly fine goal, but does it need to be the chief priority when training students that are in such unparalleled positions of responsibility? When a bowling trip is mandatory, a new approach is in order.
Likewise, a simulation can only go so far in preparing a PA to spot depression, or keep calm in an emergency situation, to name a few examples. When a PA starts out at day one, all they seem to be armed with is some bureaucratic procedures, a manual, and whatever moxie they brought to the table themselves.
A certain amount of discipline is always going to be necessary, and rumors can easily get distorted. Some instances may very well be cases of straws and camel backs. But implications of favoritism continue to linger; even when it finds an official cover story. Imagine being told that you’re getting fired for being late 21 times when you never heard a word during the first twenty instances. It’s that kind of situation. This disciplinary terrorism is the dark side of camaraderie, since a family spat can result in jobless and homeless students. If gossip can lead to people getting fired, something needs to change.
The PA censorship, while having good intentions like protecting the privacy of the residents or preventing the university from being misrepresented, is still too broad—a bit like using a battleaxe when a scalpel would do. It isn’t even necessary: all of those interviewed spoke about how their desire to foster school spirit, give back to their university, and connect with fellow students led them to become Peer Advisors in the first place. Despite the complaints, the experience was always described as a positive one and the PAs all seem to genuinely enjoy each other and their job.
No organization is perfect, and the Peer Advisor program is going through some understandable growing pains as student enrollment swells. The great service that PAs provide for our school is slowly being made that much more difficult by a situation largely out of their hands. The stakes are so high—both for them, and for regular students—that they and their organization need to be held to stricter standards and scrutiny. This summer, as you leave and return to our campus, keep this situation in mind as you interact with your PA. These passionate and hardworking advisors are here for you. They are provided some excellent rewards for this service, but it’s important that all of us, students and staff alike, not expect more than they are able to give.