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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

I’m broke. I shouldn’t be: The reality of delayed pay

Deep breath. I turn on my phone and go to open my least favorite app — Bank of America. Face ID scans my face, immediately confirming that the worry lines and bitten lip staring in anticipation at the white screen do in fact belong to me. The number appears, and I wince — $76.

Okay. Let’s do the math. Necessary expenditures coming up: $20 on medications, $30 on the lowest phone bill I could find. I’m nearly out of shampoo and body wash, so that’ll run me another $12 at least. That leaves me with a whopping… $14. Less than two Dr. Feel Goods. 

No student should be in this predicament, point blank - especially if you have a job on campus. We’re now entering the fourth week of J-Term, and ResLife student staff still haven’t been paid for the term. At Middlebury, ResLife student staff are paid on a term-to-term basis.

Listen, I know Americans often feel money is a topic best avoided, but I’m asking you to put that discomfort aside for a moment so you can perhaps better understand the lives of students like myself who are, to put it bluntly, poor.

If you didn’t know me personally, you wouldn’t know we aren’t the same. My EFC — or Estimated Family Contribution, if you’re lucky enough to not have to fill out the FAFSA — is 0. I am an independent student from the U.K., and I’m almost always here during breaks. As an independent student, I am entirely responsible for all of my own expenses both during and between semesters.

Going into my second year, I wanted to find a way to give something back to the place that has been giving me so much, and, simultaneously, I wanted to find a job – a source of income. I had really struggled my first year to figure out what kind of job fit best with my schedule and work habits. I, like so many of us, navigate mental health conditions every day, and, even without a job, my life at Middlebury is incredibly busy and exhausting. Adding something else significantly time-consuming to my schedule would come at the cost of my grades or my mental and physical health, and so the Resident Assistant gig, with duty hours and meetings in the evening after the school day is over,allows me to have a source of income and work experience without affecting my wellbeing.

Or at least I hoped it would. You see, while my RA paycheck is an essential source of income, the college doesn’t quite seem to register that. It took them weeks — many weeks — to pay the ResLife staff in the fall. I actually had to explicitly beg them to pay me sooner because I had not a cent in my bank account. At the end of the debacle, I received a lengthy email from an Associate Dean telling me to expect payments within the first four weeks of a given semester and to “plan accordingly.” 

This response also reflects another way this wealthy institution fails to understand how living on a limited budget works. I can’t really fault the school for not paying us immediately; indeed, in the real world, paychecks don’t tend to get given out on the first day of work. The real crux of the issue lies in the vague timelines. “Within four weeks” means that whatever funds I have must either support me for the next seven days or the next month. The difference is astronomical. Obviously, I budget as though I’m going to get paid on the very last day of that fourth week. 

As a result, though, I have to awkwardly explain why I can’t go see my friends in their theater productions. I can’t go to the Grille with my friends after a night out. You get the gist; it gets uncomfortable. And that four-week timeline was for the fall. For J-Term, all the RAs have heard so far is a vague announcement during training that the college is currently filing its taxes, meaning that they don’t know when they’re going to have time to pay us. Yup. Literally no timeline at all. I have absolutely no clue when I’m going to get paid.

Which brings me back to where I am now. Staring at my phone. Biting my lip raw. It isn’t being poor in itself that worsens my anxiety; it’s having no idea how long it will last. 

The purpose of on-campus jobs is to create an equalizer for low-income students, yet this delayed pay timeline reflects the college’s lack of understanding and support for students who live paycheck to paycheck. The college assumes that all students have some kind of buffer to get them through the first month of a semester, when many of us simply don’t.

When I got that email from the Associate Dean in September criticizing my expectation that a campus job would pay on time, it felt like it was my fault that I hadn’t “planned accordingly.” Yet if a school claims to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated needs, how can they also expect students with an EFC of 0 to support themselves for extended periods of time without pay? The answer is simple: They can’t.