Ahn: Residential Services pushed me to my limits

Kaylyn Ahn, Op-Ed Contributor

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide. 

On Oct. 26, 2022, I attempted suicide. I spent the next 19 days in my dorm. On the twentieth day, I received an email from Northwestern Residential Life; I was required to resume the entirety of my responsibilities as a resident assistant immediately. If I didn’t, I would be stripped of my position and lose my dorm in Schapiro Hall.

While this was some of the worst treatment I endured from NU, it was not unprecedented. Nor was it my first experience with homelessness. During the winter of 2021, I was forced to flee my home due to domestic violence. Since then, I have relied on my dorm as my only form of stable housing.

The summer of 2022, I became a conference assistant with NU’s Residential Services. I was one of 18 CAs, students who would manage all residential services for summer programs. I received three meal swipes a day, a stipend of $1,650 and housing for 200 hours of contracted work. After two students quit, the remaining CAs were forced to take up extra hours without a corresponding pay increase. Given the number of hours I was ultimately scheduled to work, my take-home wage would have amounted to less than $6.60 per hour (excluding housing and dining contracts).

I was expected to be on call for 12 hours for night duty. All the CAs lived on South Campus in the North Mid-Quads while the majority of residents lived on North Campus. Getting a call from a resident in the middle of the night meant we were expected to walk nearly a mile — alone and in the dark — from NMQ to Schapiro Hall. I voiced my concerns to Residential Services’ director of operations and services Jenny Douglas about safety and mental health. The notion of making that trek triggered my post-traumatic stress disorder, but no accommodations were made.

Further, I pointed out how little the CAs were paid, considering the hours worked. According to Residential Services, students’ housing contracts and meal plans counted as compensation. I argued we should ensure that all students are given their basic needs and that food and shelter should not be tied to employment. Residential Services excused this by claiming they support the idea that food and shelter are essential needs, but the University does not guarantee these to student employees. Students Organizing for Labor Rights and multiple conference assistants responded with a petition, but little changed. I felt like I had no options. After I decided to quit, NU Residential Services filled my position with another student, and CAs never received pay for their extra hours.

After being forced to quit, my meal plan was canceled immediately and I was given two days to leave, removing the two sources of stability I had depended on. I moved to the only sublet I could find on short notice: a house with mold and no air conditioning. As a result, I became severely sick and could not eat for days as I suffered through Chicago’s summer heat.

I had signed up to be an RA months before my experience as a CA. That fall, my PTSD and depression worsened due to the instability I suffered because of Residential Services. I had to continue working with them despite the abuse and exploitation. Eventually, I resorted to suicide.

The only other option seemed to be medical leave. My therapist recommended I enroll in a PTSD/trauma recovery program, which involved full-time rehabilitation for 30 hours a week. Residential Services had other plans, informing me that if I were to take medical leave, I would lose both my housing and my job. When I told them I had nowhere else to live, they told me it was policy and refused to consider my housing insecurity an important matter.

I pleaded my case, that I felt forced to forgo necessary PTSD treatment to focus on my position as an RA. Without my job, I go without a roof over my head. Residential Services encouraged me to resign, stating that any lack of enthusiasm shouldn’t negatively impact my residents, or my performance on the job.

This heartlessness was underscored by Residential Services’ response to my attempted suicide: an emailed list of all my upcoming RA desk shifts, a list of duty shifts and a list of RAs to contact to make up for my missed shifts.

I am not the only student who has been subject to the University’s inhumane policies — my experience has shown NU’s willingness to exploit vulnerable students to maintain its ever-growing wealth. Every student, every employee and every person has the right to housing. We have the right to food, education, healthcare and stability. No student should go without housing because of an institutional lack of remorse and compassion.

NU, a top-10 U.S. institution with a $16.1 billion endowment, capitalizes on the vulnerability of its students and employees. It is inhumane and reckless to tell a student, 20 days after attempting suicide, to get back to work or become unhoused — again.

Blaming this experience on an inflexible policy is not a valid excuse. Rather, it retraumatizes students and clearly illustrates the University’s unwillingness to take a hard look at its practices and treatment of students.

It is not just policy, it is negligence. It is not just a contract, it is an injustice. It is not procedure, it is abuse. And I refuse to stay silent any longer.

Kaylyn Ahn is a SESP sophomore. You can contact her at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.