SMITH: Pay VUceptors, or risk losing them for good

After a lackluster recruitment cycle for VUcept, we must ask why Vanderbilt balks at compensating dedicated students.
 A graphic of the 2023 VUcept cohort’s “I Heart VU” motif with a broken heart. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
A graphic of the 2023 VUcept cohort’s “I Heart VU” motif with a broken heart. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Lexie Perez

VUceptors and other orientation leaders link incoming students to a network of nearly 100 successful, well-meaning peers before they even arrive on campus. As a first-time VUceptor, when I sent my students letters in the mail welcoming them to campus over the summer, I felt the familiar giddy excitement that brings VUceptors back year after year.

Lately, though, fewer and fewer VUceptors have felt the call to come back. Over the past five years, only a third of VUceptors have been returning members. As I arrived on campus for Fall Orientation Leader Training, I quickly began to grasp the reason why so many folks have left.

The VUcept program demands loads of time from students with other commitments on their plate. It designates them as representatives of the university and dictates what they should and should not say to first-year students. It deprives a “student organization” of most of the autonomy its executive committee should wield. And worst of all, it asks these things from students for nothing in return — no stipend, no housing credit and no wages of any kind.

Even after only a few months as a member of the cohort, it’s clear to me that this arrangement is not only unsustainable but incredibly unfair to students. Let’s take a look at why.

A common refrain about FOLT goes, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” By my judgment, that’s a euphemism for a long, arduous, exhausting training process. Student VUceptors arrive on campus weeks before our peers to sit through four 12-hour training days, beginning around 7 or 8 in the morning and lasting through 8 in the evening — and that’s assuming everything runs on time.

CommonVU orientation week offers little reprieve, demanding most of a VUceptor’s day as we guide our Visions groups through a lengthy schedule of events leading up to the first day of class. Our attendance is required at nearly all of these events for no practical reason, including the Community Commitments Ceremony, the Time Management Workshop and other sessions in which we are expected to be nothing but attentive audience members.

I want to make clear the magnitude of this commitment. During the two weeks before school, there was not a day where I was not asked to be somewhere for VUcept, even on the weekend. Frequently, FOLT and CommonVU were my entire day’s itinerary, crowding out time with friends, preparation for classes and the impending senior-year job search. Over the course of nine days, I put in around 80 hours of volunteer work for the university, the equivalent of about nine hours a day. And for much of that time, I felt my presence was neither needed nor appreciated. You can imagine how this makes VUceptors — often the most enthusiastic champions of school spirit — feel about their role on campus.

But it’s easy to dismiss the burden of FOLT and orientation as a fleeting blip in the overall experience. It’s only a couple weeks, after which VUceptors surely draw most of their satisfaction, right?

Yes and no. It’s true that almost any VUceptor will tell you that their weekly Visions sessions, an opportunity to bond with as well as support first-years, are the reason they joined the organization. During our first week, my Visions group shared pictures from each other’s camera roll and talked about what we missed from back home. Simple things like that are absolutely fun and are already helping remove the bad taste that orientation left in my mouth.

It’s important to note that these sessions are fun precisely because many VUceptors do their best to ignore Vanderbilt’s expectations that we act on behalf of the school rather than the students in our groups. Once the school year starts, VUceptors don’t gain autonomy — they simply lose oversight. We are given a rigid curriculum that is tightly linked to the summer reading, which can be difficult when students don’t connect with the book. The core ideas we are supposed to discuss are the same ones already covered at length in orientation: academic integrity, stress, personal responsibility, etc. The things we actually discuss? Highlights from each others’ weeks. Difficult classes and frustrating professors. Occasionally, Lonnie’s.

Once the school year starts, VUceptors don’t gain autonomy — they simply lose oversight.

The truth is, as Visions gets easier and more fun, the gap between the university and VUceptors grows. Every week, I have to make judgment calls about which points in the curriculum are worth highlighting to my group and which ones are better left unsaid, lest they lose interest and tune out. Who can blame them? They’ve heard it all before, just like I have. They spend their days in classes and libraries and club meetings, just like I do. And they’re more excited about time to unwind in their rooms with their friends than a 50-minute seminar on stale life lessons, just like I am. My job gets more fun because my real job is to make it fun.

This situation is reflective of another issue in the program: a lack of autonomy. VUcept is listed as a student organization, meaning it is (theoretically) run by students with sponsorship and support from faculty. In practice, though, VUcept is run by the Vanderbilt administration. Students get minimal say in the FOLT schedule, in the curriculum of Visions and in most substantive aspects of the program. In fact, we don’t even elect our own officers. The “P-Team,” our president and vice president, are chosen by university staff from student applications. With this system, the “student organization” moniker feels like a stretch. During FOLT, I heard student executive board members publicly lament that the extent of their autonomy is choosing one — not both, ONE — of our “I Heart VU” t-shirt colors. VUcept is absolutely a student organization in name only.

And then, there is the crux of the matter — the pièce de resistance. What do we get for all this service and sacrifice on behalf of the university?

Nothing.

Once upon a time, student VUceptors were issued a $200 textbook stipend for their participation. Then, in 2008, for reasons that befuddle every current VUceptor, the organization voted to dissolve that stipend, lest VUceptors apply to the program “for the wrong reasons.” I’m sure their decision has ensured that any bad actors greedy for what amounts to less than $4 an hour steer clear of the organization, to be fair, but it also deters low-income students who may need the money. I can’t blame students who choose to work part-time jobs or research positions instead of joining VUcept.

The university has argued to VUcept executives that, to receive compensation, we must dissolve as a student organization — an outcome no one wants — and reclassify ourselves as employees. They suggest we would have to sacrifice our ability to self-govern despite the fact we do very little self-governing as is. And they claim they can’t currently pay members of a student organization, despite the fact that Vanderbilt’s Tour Guides received monetary stipends as incentives as recently as 2021. To me, there is every appearance that the university wants to delay action on the subject until after those of us who care have already left VUcept entirely. At the end of the day, they pick the P-Team. They’ll just get a new one next year. 

What’s worse? Our faculty partners, who fill the same role as us, get paid. In fact, they currently make 10 times what 2008’s cohort voted to forego, earning a $2,500 bonus just for signing up. That bonus, which some faculty members brush off as pennies on the dollar, amounts to two months of work at 20 hours a week for Vandy’s highest-paid student employees.

There isn’t any justifiable reason why faculty VUceptors are paid when student VUceptors aren’t. Faculty attend a fraction of the training that we do — less than one day against our four. In addition, they are tasked with a fraction of the work. They don’t scramble around Commons during move-in day, coordinating 20 hectic hellos with first-years. They don’t complete one-on-one meetings with each member of their Visions group throughout their busy semesters. In fact, it’s not unheard of for faculty VUceptors to be completely absent from the planning of Visions sessions, leaving student volunteers hanging with a workload significantly heavier than intended.

If VUcept isn’t remodeled, it will continue to drain its volunteers of their commitment to Vandy and their compassion for others, until there are no volunteers left.

The state of affairs is simply hypocritical and wrong. We can’t be paid as students, but we also can’t speak freely as students or even vote for students to represent us as students. And if we ever decide this arrangement is exploitative and problematic (which it is), Vanderbilt will simply delay, delay, delay. Three years, an eternity for a college student, is the blink of an eye for an institution that’s been around since the 19th century.

It can be tempting to dismiss all of these points as empty complaints. After all, every VUceptor signed up for this voluntarily. We knew we weren’t getting paid, and we knew how arduous the training process was. If we don’t like being a VUceptor, we can just quit. Why all the fuss? 

Simply put, “If you don’t like it, then quit” is a terrible way to run any club, let alone a program for orientation leaders. It drives students away from conflict rather than bringing them in to solve it, reducing retention and disrupting the sense of community that is so vital for supporting first-year students. VUceptors volunteer because we care about the school we know and love – and its incoming class. But a program that disrespects, frustrates and ignores us can and will hinder the university’s ability to connect with students in the long term. If VUcept isn’t remodeled, it will continue to drain its volunteers of their commitment to Vandy and their compassion for others, until there are no volunteers left.

Luckily, discussions are underway to make a difference on this issue before year’s end: we’re voting on the future of VUcept at an upcoming general body meeting on October 5. The VUceptors I’ve met are a resilient, selfless bunch, and all of us want the outcome that is best for first-year students and the school as a whole. But VUcept will not thrive if we continue to be treated like employees without the compensation that status warrants. As negotiations between VUceptors and administrators begin in earnest, Vanderbilt should keep in mind the importance of treating its students, especially those most eager to give back, with respect — both for our sake and for theirs.

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About the Contributors
Parker Smith, Deputy News Editor
Parker Smith ('24) is majoring in computer science and political science in the School of Engineering. He enjoys playing guitar in his spare time and is a former Starbucks barista and self-proclaimed coffee expert. He can be reached at [email protected].
Lexie Perez, Graphics Director
Lexie Perez (‘26) is from Northern Virginia and is majoring in climate studies and human and organizational development and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She enjoys listening to 70s and 80s pop music, doing the daily Wordle and rooting for the Nashville Predators and Cincinnati Bengals. She can be reached at [email protected].
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Comments (17)

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S
Sara
6 months ago

As a former faculty VUceptor (now at a different institution), I absolutely agree that student VUceptors should be paid. Our student partners are co-instructors in Visions, and I guarantee that they work 10 times harder than the faculty. Student VUceptors are what make Visions work. They develop close relationships with first-year students, participate fully in session planning, and are required to do so much more training than faculty. The role goes far beyond typical volunteer-based student orgs. We pay TAs (not enough, but that’s a different story), and I have never understood why student VUceptors were excluded from payment.

G
Grumpy grad
6 months ago

I would have loved to have been a Vuceptor as i felt it was a privilege in my time but I wasn’t selected. I worked 2 jobs to get by at the time. Feeling entitlement is getting in the way of helping others succeed.

J
John E Ingle
6 months ago

I’m a very old coot and have no idea what VUcept is or does, other than what I have seen in this article. Surely, though, it is in the broad category of extra-curricular activities, which traditionally have been voluntary and uncompensated. It sounds to me as if the participants in this activity might have been reading about the NIL payments to so-called “student-athletes” and want to follow their lead. In my opinion, that’s not a good model to follow. Students are not workers and have no business demanding pay for stuff that they do on campus on a volunteer basis. That includes football players, but that ship already has sailed toward the waterfall. Let’s not ruin yet more aspects of what is supposed to be an educational experience with some interesting extra-curricular sidelines for those who choose to partipate.

S
Sara
6 months ago
Reply to  John E Ingle

Students are co-teachers with their faculty partners. This is far beyond a typical volunteer org, and it has never made sense to me that Student VUceptors are not compensated like other TAs on campus.

P
6 months ago
Reply to  John E Ingle

Appreciate this argument. There are crucial differences between VUcept and other student orgs, though. First of all, if VUcept didn’t exist, the school would hire people to replace them with paid positions as orientation leaders. VUcept objectively exists to fill needed labor demand from the university regarding its orientation programs, not just for students to have fun. The other piece of this is that VUceptors have very little say in what they get to do as members. In both of those respects they’re already closer to employees than most other extracurriculars. Some reclassification could so some good.

Last edited 6 months ago by Parker Smith
D
Doreeen
6 months ago

This is an excellent and well thought out article. Exactly what one would expect from a Vanderbilt student. This is the way we change. Keep up the fight.

A
A class of ‘23
6 months ago

Well said. 10/10 article.

P
Pierce Bivens
6 months ago

Hey Parker, Great article! I was a VUceptor and on board and have been saying this for a long time. The biggest thing that y’all need to remember when arguing for this is that the biggest thing the school can use against VUceptors is that you’re all going to graduate and senior year is extremely busy. Most of board and a lot of the cohort (I didn’t crunch the numbers) during my time there totally agreed on this issue, but after the first few weeks, when everyone was unhappy with the state of affairs and looking for change, other things took over (at least my) time to the extent that it wasn’t sustainable for me to try and do activism on this issue, and then I graduated. I wish you luck and I loved reading this article. Go you!

F
Former VUceptor
6 months ago

Every aspect of the VUcept executive board’s plans, at least during my tenure on the board, was overseen directly by Vandy admin. If they didn’t sign off, it didn’t happen. Attempts to innovate were often limited to picking a new kitschy slogan for the year. When the chancellor decided he didn’t want to have to answer student questions anymore, we were told what replacement events to create. VUcept is absolutely not a traditional student org and is made to function far more as an unpaid extension of the Commons leadership. Everyone who joined our organization did it because they wanted to first year students to feel welcome, but that does not mean they don’t deserve compensation. Three t-shirts and a blanket that say “I ❤️ VU” doesn’t cover the physical and emotional labor being asked of these 100 students, and the rigid structures and university-designed binders of approved topics for every Visions session only stifle creativity and sow disinterest among the freshmen.

O
Olivia Quiroga
6 months ago

I always thought VUCEPT was an insane time commitment for a student org. These college students are working their tails off making good experiences for our students and I see no reason why the time commitment doesn’t constitute pay like RAs or TAs. Pay them!

V
VU25
6 months ago

VUceptors should be making at least $50 per hour base with benefits and tips.

E
ex-vuceptor
6 months ago

incredible article. i absolutely loved my time as a vuceptor but ultimately left as it got to a point where i was skipping classes and neglecting other aspects of my life to put in 110% (and pick up the slack of my faculty partner) with little to show for it. the admin we interact with/report to are stuffy and generally out-of-touch with what students want– it’s not uncommon for vuceptors to completely ignore their curriculum as they’re planning sessions (who wants to be bombarded with academic integrity talks and commons reading recaps constantly?). one of my main issues was that the org seriously lacks in diversity compared to other on-campus positions since it offers no financial incentive. how can orientation leaders communicate with a first-year cohort that they don’t accurately reflect? so sad i had to leave but as long as the program stays the way it does, they’ll keep losing dedicated students

P
Past VUcept selections person
6 months ago
Reply to  ex-vuceptor

I completely agree with most of what you’re saying but I will say on the diversity piece – selections is so rigorously done to represent the student body. A whole bunch of it is still secret even to the actual selections co chairs and p-team (likely they have some quotas or something we can’t see)

E
ex-vuceptor
6 months ago

this makes total sense and i’m aware of the rigorous selections process, but i was more so referring to the fact that there’s a self-selecting process going on where low-income students choose not to apply to vucept in the first place since it’s uncompensated. while i’m sure the selections team/admin do a great job of making a somewhat reflective vucept cohort, the fact is that the applicant pool that they have to choose from is already pretty skewed toward a certain direction. hopefully that applicant pool diversifies once it becomes a paid position, though!

V
VU Gold
6 months ago

Individual Merit > Diversity. We need to stop treating people as affinity groups and instead treat people as individuals.

V
VU student employee (not a vuceptor)
6 months ago

I often find myself on the other side of student grievance pieces, but this is extremely well argued and extremely compelling. I see no reason for vucept to operate as a student org. Being paid surely outweighs any advantage that supposedly exists. RAs get paid and have the same staff run, administrative nanny state as VUcept

D
Danni Chacon
6 months ago

Thank you for speaking OUR TRUTH!