Photo By: Brock University

At many universities, first-year students are encouraged and sometimes required to live in campus residence buildings. While there are many amazing aspects to living on campus, there is one part of the experience that might warrant some rethinking. 

When students live on campus, there is an expectation that the postsecondary institution will be responsible for their safety and general wellbeing. Those living on campus are also expected to follow rules and adhere to codes of conduct. 

Obviously, this means that there needs to be someone to enforce these rules and look out for student safety. If you’ve ever lived on campus, or even just been around universities, you’ll be familiar with the upper-year students that universities hire to fulfill that role; Residence Dons.

Brock University states that, “Residence Dons are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of residence through performing rounds and responding in an on-call capacity,” and that’s pretty much the same across all universities. Numbers vary, but Residence Dons can be responsible for upwards of 20 students in a residence community. It’s important to note that the Dons are required to be students, so they must balance these responsibilities with their course loads. 

Residence dons are compensated for their work, but often that compensation comes as housing and limited payment for training hours. That means that these employees don’t receive an hourly wage or a pay cheque in exchange for their work; and it can be hard, incredibly intense, time consuming work. 

I’ve never been a don, but I did live in residence in my first year and I remember seeing dons making their nightly rounds late into the night. They made sure that the building was secure and that all students were safe and abiding by codes of conduct (in my building, this meant climbing five flights of stairs every few hours). 

It’s not just locking the doors at the end of the night, though, dons are usually the first point of contact for any kind of issue that occurs in a residence building. They’re expected to maintain a relationship with members of their residence community, to manage conflicts between residents, and to facilitate community events. 

So far, most of this sounds alright; sometimes you might have to stay up a little later to lock a few doors, but that could seem like a fair trade in exchange for a free room. It’s because residence dons are the first point of contact for any issue a resident may have that I think is the cause for concern. 

The types of issues that university students face can be challenging and serious. It’s not hard to imagine the types of problems that could occur in a community of a couple dozen 18-year-olds. Residence dons are expected to know when to contact campus security and other emergency responders, and how to refer students to personal counselling or student health services, among other things. In other words, dons have to be prepared to do everything from helping a resident who’s having a mental health crisis to figuring out how to deal with potentially criminal situations. 

That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a student who, in most cases, is only a year or two older than their residents. 

While Dons are tasked with supporting their fellow students, it’s important that they are also supported by permanent residence staff and the institution more broadly. It’s also important that they’re treated like employees and are fairly compensated for the work they do. Given that they are technically on the clock 24/7 as a Don, it’s fair to say that the compensation they receive isn’t fully adequate for all that they do.

I’d argue that in many cases, institutions take advantage of students’ need for affordable housing to lure them into doing difficult, thankless, and incredibly stressful jobs for inadequate compensation. There will always be students who need a place to live, and so there will always be students looking to apply for these positions. 

However, just because some students might be desperate enough to do the work, it doesn’t mean it’s right to take advantage of them.