By Kelly Schulz
After years of being paid less than their Resident Assistant (RA) counterparts, Peer Health Educators (PHEs) are utilizing current conversations around mental health and residential life to call renewed attention to their effort to achieve pay equality.
An ongoing Change.org petition entitled “Pay Peer Health Educators (PHEs) an Equal Wage” had acquired over 150 signatures out of a 200-signature goal as of Wednesday night.
The pay disparity
PHEs used to be paid a $1,000 stipend per year through Vaden Health Center, which was changed to $3,075 per year starting with the 2017-18 school year after several Resident Fellows (RFs) boycotted the program over repeated ignorance of student and RF complaints about the stipend. This is compared to the $11,822 that RAs are paid through Residential Education (ResEd).
In addition, according to RF and PHE reports, funding for the PHE program is not permanent, nor is the increase in the PHE stipend.
This year, over half of the PHEs on campus belong to a GroupMe called “PHEelin’ Broke,” where they organize around obtaining pay parity. They have attended town halls held by ResX, a new task force that aims to reform Stanford’s residential life, and have met with administrators to voice their concerns.
Most recently, 17 of the 28 PHEs on campus signed an op-ed published in The Daily calling on the ResX task force to raise PHE pay to be on par with RAs, writing that despite being paid less than 30 percent of an RA stipend, they do not “talk through 30 percent of a student’s mental health struggles” or “clean up 30 percent of vomit.”
Despite this issue being a topic of campus discussion for many years, it is still unclear why the pay gap even exists. According to Kyle Dixon ’20, a PHE in Kimball Hall, the role seems to have been originally intended to be more of a live-in ambassador for Vaden rather than an additional staff member for a dorm — similar to a pre-assignee. However, Dixon, as well as other PHEs, affirmed that the de facto role of PHE does not match this description.
The PHE role
“It’s frustrating because our jobs are so similar, but I feel like mine is even more,” said Sofia Poe ’19, a PHE in Serra House in Stern Hall. “We plan dorm events together, we do house meeting together, we’re all there and present with our doors open and we have freshmen come and talk to us. I don’t do on calls, but I have my own special programming.”
Dixon said he knows many PHEs who stay up late talking to residents, as much as RAs — or sometimes even more, because they are seen as the go-to wellness expert.
Cedro RF Jason Lee agreed that PHEs and RAs share similar responsibilities. According to Lee, the only substantial differences between PHE and RA roles are that PHEs are not scheduled for on-calls and they do not have lockout keys. He added that the roles “blur” quite a bit, noting that his residents do not distinguish their PHE from the rest of the staff, and that the PHE often provides an equal level of student support.
Pat Harris, spokesperson for the Vice Provost for Student Affairs (VSPA), which oversees Vaden, agreed that the role of the PHE has changed with time.
“Since its inception 25 years ago, the Peer Health Educators program has offered valuable services to our residential community,” she wrote in an email to The Daily. “The role that PHEs play has evolved over time, as is the case for all student positions within our residences.”
Harris did not offer details as to how the role has evolved, or any efforts to make pay reflect these changes.
One change has been that PHE training has increased over time. For example, PHEs this year were required for the first time to attend staff training, along with the rest of residential staff, in the two-and-a-half weeks before classes began. This is in addition to the four-unit PHE training class that PHEs must take in the spring prior to the start of their jobs.
Poe said PHEs were seldom acknowledged in the training, and that much of the content was similar to what she had learned in PHE training, but not as in-depth on topics related to “wellness,” which can be understood to include mental health as well as physical health and wellbeing.
As a four-unit class, PHE training is already more intense than the two-unit RA training class. PHEs are also the only residential staff members required to complete additional training workshops throughout the year, according to Dixon and the op-ed.
Dixon discussed the training differential in terms of pay. He said that if you look only at the two-unit difference in coursework, it ends up being roughly $2,000 more in tuition that PHEs are paying than RAs in order to qualify for their role. There was also no increase in compensation when they were required to attend an additional two-and-a-half weeks of training this year.
In Dixon’s opinion, PHEs are not only compensated less but are also paying more for their training.
The value of wellness
Stanford has faced increasing demands in recent months to improve resources for students’ mental health and wellbeing. For instance, a lawsuit filed in May and amended in July alleged discrimination in Stanford’s leave of absence policies in the face of mental health crises, as well as staffing shortages at the Bridge Peer Counseling Center and consistent overbooking at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
“I think, frankly, [the small stipend] is hypocritical given the current concerns about treatment of students with mental illnesses,” said Dixon, citing the emphasis placed on mental health and wellbeing in his training.
“Though the administration says that they value mental health care for students, it signals something different when they pay the emissaries of Stanford’s health and wellness programs, in the heart of residential life, so little,” he added.
Nonetheless, Dixon repeatedly expressed gratitude for his training.
According to Lee, the emphasis on wellness has increased over time. He believes that this change is “good and welcome” but that its value should be reflected in the PHE stipend. Lee said that the lower stipend for PHEs has ripple effects that include a much smaller candidate pool, and some RFs that want to hire PHEs being unmatched.
He also expressed concern that the pay disparity “might make it hard for less-resourced students to be able to accept the PHE role.”
Poe said that she knew the job would be challenging, but she decided to staff to have a positive impact on the freshmen’s experiences. She added that she also decided to become a PHE because she had heard that the training was more robust than that for RAs, and she wanted to be fully prepared for her role.
“It didn’t deter me from applying for the job, clearly” Poe said. “But I didn’t fully realize how much the RAs were being paid until fall training. When they told me the number I was like ‘ah—okay.’”
Looking to the future
Despite having slightly different ideas of how exactly to structure PHE pay in the future, Lee, Dixon and Poe all agreed that PHE pay needs to be raised to a level comparable to RA pay. They also expressed hopes that the ResX task force will make changes to ameliorate the disparity.
Lee floated the idea that PHEs be paid through ResEd.
“If you could imagine a different fantasy world, all the staff come from the same source through ResEd, each person is paid the same, and they all have the same training on things like University resources and management of students in crisis as a baseline,” he said. “Then, they could subspecialize like with additional training in things like wellness or computers.”
Dixon proposed a similar plan for an equal wage. He said that if ResX wants to keep the budget the same, it could change the structure of residential staff.
“Instead of having 11 staff members — nine RAs, one PHE and one RCC — you could have nine or ten staff members, all RAs, and then give an additional $2,000 stipend to two of these RAs to be trained as RCCs and PHEs,” he said. “They would be up-trained, essentially.”
Harris indicated that the pay disparity is being taken into consideration during the ResX process.
“While it is premature to speculate on specific outcomes, it is our expectation that the ResX examination of staffing structures will include the PHE role,” Harris wrote.
So far, according to Dixon, administrators have been receptive to PHE concerns, and he and a few other PHEs were able to meet with the VPSA Susie Brubaker-Cole to air their concerns last week.
“I’m excited to talk to [Brubaker-Cole] because in good faith, I think she actually is earnestly interested in helping fix things,” Dixon said.
This report has been updated to include information about the Change.org petition.
Contact Kelly Schulz at schulz19 ‘at’ stanford.edu.