Photo By: Brock University
Residence life is a key pillar of the university experience. For many students, this is where they meet lifelong friends and learn how to live away from home for the first time. This environment can be equal parts exciting and nerve wracking, which is where residence dons come into play.
Residence dons, as they are called at Brock, are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of their assigned block of students. This typically ranges from 30 to 50 students and varies based on residence style. However, amid higher-than-usual numbers of staff resignations and terminations, this year’s dons have been asked to take on additional blocks, and in some cases, ended up being responsible for over 100 students.
Many dons are full-time undergraduate students, meaning they must balance their residence responsibilities with a full course load. They are compensated for some mandatory training and receive free accommodations during the school year, but are not paid an hourly wage. While dons are allowed a certain number of nights off, many have found it difficult to fully disconnect from their work, given the arrangement of living where they work. This has presented a unique challenge for those who have been asked to take on more work, because there has not been additional compensation provided as of yet.
Students who choose to become dons typically do so because they want to provide mentorship and gain valuable experience, and they often develop strong relationships with their students. This, coupled with pressure from management, makes it difficult to decline a heavier workload when asked, because dons care deeply about students and their wellbeing.
“This year has been a weird year, but the fear is that a lot of these issues will carry over to next year,” said a don who wished to remain anonymous. “What makes things harder is that when restrictions lift there’ll be more students in residence. In terms of worker’s rights, we don’t feel compensated fairly.”
Brock’s residence staff are not the first to express concerns in this regard. In 2019, University of Western Ontario’s residence staff cast ballots on unionization, but the university argued that residence staff were not employees and hence did not have the right to unionize. Similarly, Queen’s University residence staff also considered unionization in 2020 amid contractual concerns.
Brock Residence Life did not respond to a request for comment regarding compensation structure.
While current dons have considered taking action, many are worried that voicing their concerns might impact their future employment both at Brock and beyond. However, it is expected that their workloads will continue to increase, as the university plans to lift visitor restrictions for the 2022-2023 school year. This will result in higher residence traffic and increased potential for situations requiring staff intervention.
“We’re trained to be whistleblowers, both for students and staff alike,” said the anonymous source.
At the same time, there are also many both former and current dons who have had extremely positive experiences in the role. Of course, this depends on a variety of factors including the residence style, management team, staff team, and personal commitments.
“I took six courses in a semester and managed my job quite fine; I call that time management, which I learned through this job,” said Elizabeth Willoughby, residence don from 2012–2015. “You don’t become a don…for the financial compensation, you do it because you want to help people, because you want to learn life skills like what it’s like to actually listen to someone, and for the friendships you form.”
As the school year wraps up, many members of the current residence life team are looking forward to returning next year. As a result, they have decided not to act at this time and will instead re-evaluate in the fall once a full team has been established.