Christina Osadchuk/Production Editor

What does it mean to be valued and why such a discrepancy?

Have you ever felt like you weren’t valued at work? Well, that’s how some students who are employed with the McMaster Students Union are feeling.

The MSU has about 300 clubs and 22 services that provide McMaster students opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities. While clubs are governed by individual student presidents, MSU services work a little differently.

They’re led by directors — McMaster students who are enrolled in eighteen credits or more. Service directors, who are classified as part-time managers at the MSU, are expected to hire a team of executives, manage a budget and coordinate events. PTMs go through an intensive hiring process and once hired, they attend training sessions on how to effectively run their department, learn MSU policies, procedures and practices. At least, this is what the process is on paper.

While this process might seem routine for anybody starting a new job, three PTMs have stepped forward to the Silhouette to share their experiences working for the MSU. The Silhouette has granted these individuals anonymity due to their employment with the MSU and their fear of retribution. They shall be referred to as PTM 1, PTM 2 and PTM 3.

Recent History:

This is not the first time the Silhouette has covered the MSU PTM experience. In June 2017, Zeinab Khawaja, the director of the Peer Support Line, a service that no longer exists at the MSU, brought forth to the Student Representative Assembly a number of concerns on behalf of the PTMs.

“It feels like our dedication to our services is used against us, because it is known that we will continue to do the work and put in the hours even though we are not being compensated fairly for it . . . Yet going above and beyond in our roles — something implicitly expected of a “good” part-time manager — is not rewarded, and instead deemed a ‘personal choice’ of the part-time manager that was never explicitly asked of us,” said Khawaja as reported by the Silhouette in 2017.

There isn’t a lot of information publicly available on what happened after this meeting, but Preethi Anbalagan, VP Admin in 2017, said that the MSU was working to address the issues brought forth by Khawaja.

Each PTM reports to the MSU Executive Board — a group consisting of five SRA members, the Board of Directors, General Manager, Communications Director, Administrative Services Coordinator and Associate Vice-President: Services.

When challenges arise, PTMs are supposed to speak with the Executive Board or put them in the Executive Board report, so that the Board can address those concerns.

Reflecting on the Past:

According to the 2021-2022 PTMs, most of their issues can be condensed into two main areas: lack of support/communication and lack of training. In fact, most of the grievances they have aired to the Silhouette this year line up with what Khawaja stated to the SRA in 2017.

In preparation for their interviews, we asked the PTMs to read our past coverage on the matter.

“Although unsurprising, it was quite shocking to see the exact same frustrations I had experienced echoing an article written five years ago. This really shows how systemic these issues are and that it is a deeper issue within the MSU structure,” said PTM 2.

This statement was echoed.

“I have heard from my predecessor and my predecessor’s predecessor that this job is unnecessarily stressful. It shocks me to my core that folks have been sharing these thoughts and feelings for years and absolutely nothing has changed,” said PTM 3.

Lack of Support & Communication:

Every individual may need support a little differently, but according to the MSU PTMs, “support feels non-existent” from their supervisor, MSU VP Administration, Christina Devarapalli. One PTM even stated that this lack of support and communication was their biggest job stressor.

“The silence from our supervisor [is the biggest stressor of my job]. We work in liminality of feeling overwhelmed by the information, protocol and bureaucracy required to achieve really anything and feeling entirely underwhelmed by the guidance and instruction required to navigate these,” said PTM 1.

MSU President Denver Della-Vedova indicated that while Devarapalli is the supervisor, there are also supports for the service directors with other MSU staff such as their assistant directors, MSU human resources and the rest of Executive Board.

Both Della-Vedova and Devarapalli stated that all PTMs can state any challenges they are currently facing in reports that they present to Executive Board.

“When any report comes in, the first thing I go to is the challenges section and when that report is presented at EB, as Denver mentioned, he follows up, [and] I also make an effort to follow up as well to see what kind of support we can offer,” said Devarapalli.

Communication breakdowns seemed to occur quite frequently when PTMs allegedly would send emails to Devarapalli but receive no response. One breakdown of significance was identified by PTM 3 who stated that service directors were not informed of the MSU going from solely online operations to hybrid during the Winter 2022 term.

“[W]ithout ANY communication with service PTMs, the MSU publicly shared to thousands of students that peer support services [would] be moving back to in-person operations . . . I have asked about the transition back to in-person numerous times with zero answers. And now I am hearing that my service is going back in person through the [MSU] Instagram account? This is ridiculously disrespectful to the folks who are working their butts off to run these peer support services with very little support and very little instruction while also being full-time students,” they said.

Devarapalli clarified to the Silhouette that there was an oversight internally at the MSU with regards to this issue. As the MSU leadership started to finalize what a potential return to campus would look like, it accidentally went out on social media before internal folks could be informed.

“As soon as we recognized this, I went and clarified the expectations around [the return to campus] and that it was not a complete or obligated return. Rather, it was based on a service’s individual timeline and capacity,” said Devarapalli.

Della-Vedova pointed out that Devarapalli did hold open office hours, had an open-door policy and gave all PTMs her personal phone number.

Devarapalli added that she tried to create a “casual, virtual environment” through hosting open-door meetings three times a week, but also allowing PTMs to schedule more traditional, “formal” meetings if they chose.

Lack of Training and Hours:

Although training is outlined in their job descriptions, the MSU allegedly did not provide all of the training required for the PTMs to be successful.

According to the PTMs, there was a lack of proper budget training and anti-oppressive training, even though it is expected that service directors apply an antiracist and anti-oppressive framework within their services as per their job descriptions.

“Our training consisted primarily of how to fill out purchase orders and how to use excel to track our hours. There is so much more training that needs to go into [these roles]. I felt like I was dumped in the deep end with absolutely no experience and absolutely no meaningful training for the role,” said PTM 3.

Della-Vedova and Devarapalli seemed quite confused when the Silhouette asked them about this lack of training.

Devarapalli clarified that each year, the MSU provides sexual violence prevention response, accessibility training and anti-oppressive practices training. Not only was this training provided live, but it was also posted to Avenue2Learn in module form, which allowed for the MSU to track who has completed the training. She also stated that financial training was provided at least three times.

This directly conflicts with what PTM 3 stated to the Silhouette, claiming that there was no asynchronous option for training and that no anti-oppressive practices training was provided.

It should also be noted that although these PTMs have signed on to work 12-14 hours per week, they have claimed they worked at least 20 hours a week in order to meet the duties outlined in their job descriptions and service operating policies.

“I feel like the MSU is profiting off of the work that students are putting in without doing any of the work themselves. We are scolded for going over hours,” said PTM 3.

Devarapalli directly addressed this comment.

“I don’t think that the concept of profiting off people’s labour or exploiting them is accurate because the MSU is a not-for-profit organization, so none of these student services generate revenue to the board. All of them operate within confined budgets that are approved by the SRA,” she said.

Devarapalli stated that resources have been provided to PTMs which can allow them to fall back on full-time staff, the VP Admin or even their assistant directors; however, this should be delegated.

Della-Vedova also clarified that when a PTM thinks they are going to go over their hours in a given week, they must seek approval from the VP Admin by providing an approximate range of how much they will go over, allowing the VP Admin to see if any support can be given. Part of this process involves PTMs actively tracking their hours and specifying what they are doing with their time.

What is Actually Happening at the MSU?

Unfortunately, the Silhouette cannot discern why there is such a discrepancy between the experiences of the PTMs and the views of the Board of Directors.

Della-Vedova weighed in with his thoughts.

“I think it really is a difference in expectations as we move through the year and we’ve had this changing paradigm of COVID. I think we have to recognize that there has been shifts there and with that, has come changes in what we need of each other in the whole . . . it is hard to make those changes.” said Della-Vedova.

Based on interviews with both parties, there seemed to be an overwhelming sense that a systemic lack of communication and mistrust could factor into this situation reaching a boiling point. Coupled with COVID-19 forcing all communications to be digital, both the PTMs and Board of Directors have likely fallen victim to this unfortunate circumstance.

“With regards to communication as well, I think just being in a COVID year has made it very challenging for everyone and email is not the most efficient way to do fast communication and also reliable communication in general . . . I think this will also dissipate, as you know, everyone returns to the regular student life experience on campus,” said Devarapalli.

PTM 2 did try to have a positive outlook on the future of the PTM/Board of Directors relationship, speaking directly to this year’s leadership team.

“We understand that your roles are frustrating, overwhelming, and difficult but this is an area we can relate on. There does not have to be fabricated tension between the VPs and PTMs. If we talked openly and honestly about the difficulties in our roles, our capacities, and the constraints of our influences we would all be better off and able to create a healthier work environment. I feel saddened that many of the PTMs complaints were met with defensiveness instead of an openness to conversation and collaboration, but hopeful that this can be reframed for future teams,” said PTM 2.

Each PTM also suggested how their roles can be improved so the issues they identified could be nipped in the bud for future years.

Suggestions such as adding more paid roles to help strengthen the team instead of relying solely on volunteer work; more training in areas directly linked to peer support; a better transition in and out of the role; as well as open communication and transparency between PTMs and the Board of Directors could all drastically improve the experiences for both parties.

Della-Vedova did point out that the MSU created new paid positions during the 2020-2021 year in the form of assistant directors to help offset some of the service directors’ responsibilities.

He also stated that the Board of Directors is directly working with Maccess to identify ways to split up the director role or add a second assistant director, recognizing that the workload might be too much for disabled folks. 

The Silhouette gave each PTM the opportunity to say something directly to the MSU leadership team; however, this statement was quite startling: “Every time I ask for your help and all you do is nod and smile without even a smidge of valuable advice, I feel small and stupid,” said PTM 1.

Both Della-Vedova and Devarapalli were taken aback by this comment.

“So first off, I want to say, obviously upsetting to read that and I very much feel for whoever wrote this and would heavily encourage them to reach out,” said Della-Vedova.

The two went on to suggest ways that the experience could be improved in the future thanks to the MSU looking to increase human resources support, but also ensuring that the in-person environment we are likely going into with the 2022-2023 term is conducive to having these types of conversations.

Looking Forward:

Next year’s VP Admin, Mitchell German, was the Spark director for the 2021-2022 term. During his election at the first SRA meeting for the academic year, German emphasized that his experience leading Spark would enable him to better provide supports for next year’s PTMs.

“I think that more than half the job of VP Admin is support, specifically for the MSU services. And having been involved in a variety of them, personally being the part-time manager for Spark . . . Support is not something that is one-size fits all. You really do have to take that individualized approach and the best way to be able to support somebody is by simply asking how do they like being supported,” said German at SRA 22A.

With German at the helm of service delivery for next year, it is expected that he’ll fall back on his PTM experience from Spark and any knowledge he may have of issues facing other services in the 2021-2022 year when it comes to assisting next year’s cohort. Della-Vedova and Devarapalli said that they’re more than willing to have a chat with the three PTMs that the Silhouette interviewed for this article, for them to be open about concerns they’ve had, if not for themselves, for their successors.

Most students in paid MSU positions have volunteered for the MSU in the past

C/O Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

Every year around February and March, the McMaster Students Union begins hiring for paid student positions. Whether it’s being a part-time director for an MSU service, a research assistant for MSU Advocacy or working for the Silhouette, there are many ways to get involved and actually be paid for your work.

In addition, the MSU highlights that prior employment or volunteer experience within the MSU is not required to apply for these positions. While that may be true, the odds of actually landing a position in the MSU without prior volunteer experience are very unlikely.

But if they’re saying you can apply without prior experience in the MSU, why would they not also hire students who don’t have prior experience? I’m not saying it’s impossible to be hired for a paid role, I’m just saying it’s not likely you will be hired for a paid role.

Why is that? Because in the four years I’ve been at McMaster University, most people I know who have been hired for paid roles had previous volunteer experience within the MSU.

Because in the four years I’ve been at McMaster University, most people I know who have been hired for paid roles had previous volunteer experience within the MSU.

Let’s highlight the part-time director positions first, shall we? Director positions are student positions that manage an MSU service. For example, services such as the Women and Gender Equity Network, Spark, the Student Health Education Centre, Diversity Services and Maccess all have a director.

Currently, all of these directors used to be volunteer executives for their respective services. Volunteer executives have to commit a large amount of time to the service — around 5-10 hours a week — typically for a whole year. If we open it up even further, most part-time directors have at least been a general volunteer for their service or the MSU as a whole. 

Evidently, most directors have volunteered for the MSU in the past. This can make sense in many ways, as they are managing a whole service and obviously need to be qualified to do this — so volunteering is an asset, right? But what about paid positions that don’t involve directing a whole service?

Even for non-managerial roles, students who are hired for paid roles often have volunteer experience beforehand. I can speak on behalf of the Sil — as the Opinions Editor for the past two years, I volunteered for the Sil the year before I got hired.

At the Sil, previous experience is considered an asset. You don’t need to have previous experience to be hired, of course, but you’re much more likely to have a step-up in being hired if you can say you’ve written an article or two for the Sil in the past.

I can’t speak on behalf of the other paid roles in the MSU, but I can tell you that almost all my friends that have been hired for a paid role in the MSU have volunteered for the MSU at some point in their undergraduate career.

So what’s the problem? The problem is: what about the people who can’t afford to volunteer? Students may find themselves in a financially unstable situation where the only option they have is to find a job — volunteering simply doesn’t make sense because it won’t help them pay for their groceries or rent.

As a result, because they are not volunteering for the MSU, they are less likely to land a paid role in the MSU. This makes a lot of paid roles in the MSU financially inaccessible for students if they are unable to volunteer. They may be spectacular at the role they’re applying for, but they may not be hired because they don’t have previous experience with the MSU.

So what’s the problem? The problem is: what about the people who can’t afford to volunteer?

The fact that “you can apply regardless of MSU experience” is misleading — you can apply, but if you do have volunteer experience, you are more likely to be hired. It’s okay if volunteering helps you get a step up in being hired, but the MSU should start making that more clear.

Amidst COVID-19, services across campus try to find ways to stay accessible in an online environment

The online fall term required the McMaster Students Union to adapt and innovate its services, typically run in-person, to continue to provide support, supplies and community to McMaster University students. The MSU runs over 30 services, run by and for students, that offer a range of resources and opportunities, from confidential peer support to first aid. Over the summer months, the part-time managers of each service planned and prepared to convert their in-person programming to online supports.

MSU Food Collective Centre

In typical years, the Food Collective Centre has run an on-campus food bank and various programs to increase food security in the McMaster community. The FCC has offered both catered programming and events, such as the Community Kitchen. PTM Hannan Minhas explained how the FCC will continue to provide these services and be mindful of COVID restrictions.

The drop-in food bank service will be closed to students for the fall term due to COVID restrictions. Instead, Lockers of Love will be the primary service to ensure that students and community members can still access the FCC resources. Students and community members can anonymously fill out an order form for non-perishable food items and health supplies. 

“[The executive team are] trying to make [Lockers of Love] more efficient so students can access food almost the same day or one day later. And we have more lockers so we’ll try to accommodate as many students as we can,” said Minhas. 

“[The executive team are] trying to make [Lockers of Love] more efficient so students can access food almost the same day or one day later. And we have more lockers so we’ll try to accommodate as many students as we can,” said Minhas. 

The Good Food Box, which is run in partnership with the Grace Lutheran Church, will run this term as it has in the past. The box is filled with fresh produce and is picked up on campus. The order and pick-up dates for the fall term can be found at the FCC website.

The FCC will offer the Community Kitchen workshops online, likely through Microsoft Teams to ensure closed captioning. Participants have the chance to cook a recipe along with the instructor, to ask questions and to build skills and confidence in the kitchen. Interested participants reserve their space and fill out a poll for which date and times are preferred, to accommodate all participants regardless of class schedule or time zones. The FCC will increase capacity and maintain a community for the workshops this term because of the virtual setting.

FCC will also run virtual events and contests, such as Quarantine Cooking, where students create and submit a recipe based on a key ingredient for the chance to win a $25 gift card.

MSU Peer Support Services

The four peer support services of the MSU have all adapted their programming in a secure and accessible way for this term. Maccess, Pride Community Centre, Women and Gender Equity Network and Student Health Education Centre have all adapted one-on-one peer support to virtual platforms. Flexibility and the needs of the communities that they serve are priorities for each service this term.

“We’re just trying to be open and have conversations with users who seek resources and responding [to users] in ways that maximize their comfort,” said Yimeng Wang, WGEN coordinator.

“We’re just trying to be open and have conversations with users who seek resources and responding [to users] in ways that maximize their comfort,” said Yimeng Wang, WGEN coordinator.

Each coordinator outlined plans and options to accommodate students in different time zones and with various technological resources.

Students and community members can reach out for one-on-one peer support or join identity-specific community groups in varied ways, such as through email, social media, anonymous forms and the platforms used by different services. Disclosure of specifics is not necessary to join a community group.

Maccess, WGEN and the PCC have each developed a Discord server where participants can access one-on-one peer support through text, audio or video chats. These servers will be available in early October and will be accessible by request. SHEC has developed a "Warmline" using tawk.to to offer non-crisis peer support. The Warmline will be fully anonymous through text chat, but support can also be offered via audio or video chats per student request. The Warmline is expected to launch in the coming weeks.

https://www.facebook.com/msuSHEC/posts/3287225894695713

Students and community members can also reach out to join identity-specific community groups offered by different services. These groups are run by volunteers with lived experiences and include a BIPoC-2STLGBQIA+ community group from the PCC, a disabled-2STLGBQIA+ community by the PCC and Maccess and Black and Gendered by WGEN and McMaster Womanists. PCC coordinator Christian Barborini highlighted that participants may not be out or may live in unsupportive environments, so they have accommodated supports to suit individual circumstances, such as text-only in the community group.

WGEN also has a peer support group for survivors.

https://www.facebook.com/WGEN.MSU/posts/2741913719369823

The PCC will offer individual check-ins this year. Participants can sign up and will receive a weekly text-based check-in from a PCC volunteer.

SHEC coordinator Sydney Cumming hopes to develop a system for students and community members to access the free resources that SHEC has normally provided. This is still in the works; however, Cumming is hoping to have a system by the end of the fall term. Cumming hopes to partner with the FCC’s Lockers of Love and WGEN with their gender-affirming products that Cumming highlighted as “life-saving”. In addition, the SHEC team hopes to partner with libraries and the Student Wellness Centre to offer various products. 

All of the peer support services plan to run events this term. Calvin Prowse, Maccess coordinator, planned for more frequent but relaxed events and is excited for the opportunity to have events they weren’t able to do previously. Maccess has a Pet and Plant Appreciation Party planned for later this term. Cumming has SHEC events planned to distribute resources to students, such as grocery store gift cards.

The service coordinators had different preferences for video platforms. SHEC, Maccess and PCC preferred Microsoft Teams for its built-in closed captioning. Wang preferred Zoom and Otter.ai for closed captioning.

“I think it was really important for us to try to find a way to create a community space in a way that doesn’t add on to Zoom fatigue and gives people a break,” said Prowse.

The coordinators are also working to ensure that the various platforms, such as Discord and tawk.to, are compatible with screen readers.

“I think it was really important for us to try to find a way to create a community space in a way that doesn’t add on to Zoom fatigue and gives people a break,” said Prowse

MSU Emergency First Response Team

The yellow backpacks won’t be on campus for a while, at least until November when the EFRT advisory board will re-evaluate whether it is safe for responders to be on-call. According to the EFRT Director Kevin Park, the EFRT advisory board has developed a "return to call" criteria. The advisory board is made up of student staff, including MSU representatives and medical doctors, including the EFRT Medical Director Dr. Morgan Hillier.

The priority of EFRT and its advisory board is the safety of all responders and community members. The safe reopening evaluation criteria are: risk of COVID-19 to responders, enough personal protective equipment, the population numbers on campus and office space for responders.

According to Park, the number of people on campus is used to gauge the capacity of Security Services and the Student Wellness Centre to respond, in case of an emergency on campus. The office space is a concern for Park, as he said that their current space is shared between 30 students and unable to accommodate social distancing. In addition, Park is concerned about the current spike of COVID-19 cases in Ontario and on university campuses, such as Western University.

“We’ve been trying to focus mainly on the things that we couldn’t do before,” explained Park.

In light of this, EFRT has increased its social media presence and has changed its training and hiring practices.

“We’ve been trying to focus mainly on the things that we couldn’t do before,” explained Park

Current EFRT responders have continued to practice First Aid and CPR. EFRT will run monthly virtual training sessions that will focus on critical thinking skills and knowledge of protocols. Park wants all responders to maintain their standard so that they are ready to go back as soon as possible.

For more information on MSU service adaptations, check out the MSU website.

https://www.facebook.com/MSUMcMaster/posts/3562728260424699&sa=D&ust=1600726517532000&usg=AFQjCNHBWTrfMv-QLixINzj--92BCxVkAQ

When reached for an interview about the MSU’s service changes, VP (Administration) Graeme Noble and AVP (Services) Martino Salciccioli declined an interview.

Correction: Oct

Because of an error while collecting information, a previous version of this article misstated the medical director of EFRT as Dr. Eddie Wasser. The current medical director is Dr. Morgan Hillier and the article has been updated accordingly.

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