What Student Employees Have Taught Me

As a new librarian, and as someone who is new to working at a university, there’s a lot to learn. I’ve learned about some of the university’s history and how it affects day-to-day operations, the degree programs and course offerings, different colleges on campus, how each college has their own rules regarding faculty promotion and tenure, and the ebb and flow of different semester schedules. Then, there’s the current environment and culture of the campus. Much of what I’ve learned comes from faculty and staff who have been on campus for decades, and for that I’m grateful. They have the best insight into the political and structural nature of campus and faculty life; however, it’s the students and more specifically, student employees, in the library that provide the most holistic view of campus life and culture.

Before January, I worked 9-hour shifts on Saturdays with the same staff. It was always me, a supervisor at circulation, and a mix of student employees. Saturdays, especially over the summer, were slow. My main duty on Saturdays was to staff the research help desk in case we had any drop-in questions. There would sometimes be long stretches where no one would come by with a question, and if I had nothing else going on, I frequently found myself chatting with the student employees.

I do not supervise any students, so I don’t have any insights about what that’s like (others have though, and talk about supervising and mentorship). I do, however, think that our student employees are great, which is why below, in no particular order, I’m listing out what I’ve learned from student employees along the way.

Campus life and history

Did you know that Main Hall is haunted by past Jesuits? And that, if you ask very nicely, campus safety will take you on a tour of the building’s basement on Halloween so that you can experience the ghosts firsthand? This tidbit came up in a larger conversation about ghosts, and suddenly, I knew about every haunted building on campus. This is the interesting type of myth that students know. Campus history is passed down from one class of students to another, and I’m not privy to it unless a student is willing to share. Any fun fact I know about the university most likely came from a student employee.

Beyond myths and campus lore, students have very strong opinions about their classes, professors, and perceptions of leadership. I’ve learned about what classes were difficult and why in different departments. One student ranted very openly and honestly about being treated as a dollar sign by campus administration instead of as a student who was learning and making mistakes in classes. Student employees will give you an idea of the general mood and morale on campus, especially during exams.

Basically, if I want to know how students feel about new construction plans, the history of a particular spot on campus, or the perception of an assignment, I just have to ask.

Reminder of what being in college is like

An employee had recently moved to off-campus apartments and was talking about how difficult grocery shopping was. They had never gone grocery shopping on their own before, and talked about trying to get the right amount of food on a college budget. They had to start from scratch with spices and staples, and it felt overwhelming. Conversations about life and firsts are a good reminder that, yes, college students are adults, but many that we label as traditional, undergraduate students are learning how to be independent for the first time. Students are taking classes, but also figuring out how to manage their bills, divide their time and energy, and take care of their health. Many of our student workers are undergrads, so I get the new college student perspective most often; however, I’m often reminded that graduate students or undergraduates that do not fit under the traditional student mold face a set of challenges all their own. It can be easy to fall into a trap of getting frustrated with the student in the back of the class that isn’t paying attention to my well thought-out and incredibly important assignment, but conversations about daily life and struggles remind me that student lives and experiences are rich, complex, and diverse. I’m grateful any time a student employee is willing to share their experience with me.

Great sounding board for ideas

I sometimes have what I think is a great idea for library instruction, or I want to try something new for outreach. I’ve taken these ideas to student employees who have been generous with their time to provide feedback. Now that they know me better, student employees are very honest about their opinions and provide some of their own ideas that have been helpful. I appreciate student input in things I’m designing for students. We’ve also had student employees play test the escape rooms we’ve created for finals week, give feedback about our surveys, and in general, be the student voice in the activities and materials we create for the library. Of course, student employees aren’t necessarily representative of the entire student population, so we don’t rely on them for everything; however, employees are a great start for engaging with students in general.

Assistance with our projects

Most of our student employees have defined job roles, but they are sometimes excited to try new projects or learn about different aspects of the library. For instance, I was working with our digital content librarian to weed DVDs in my subject area. A student employee I know very well was in the area, and I knew that she was heavily involved with the literature and poetry community. She ended up looking through content relevant to her major so that we could seek her input into the collection as well. Another student employee recommended popular biology titles that we didn’t have for our collection that she thought other students would be interested in checking out. If I haven’t made this point clear yet, then I’d like to emphasize that student voices are valuable to library operations. We can guess what materials are most relevant to students, or we can ask for their input. Student employee involvement in collection development has taught me more about what’s popular in certain subject areas or what students might be interested to see in a collection. Having student employees involved in library projects brings me to my final point.

Potential future librarians

If you ask your colleagues about their first library job, many of them will talk about being employed in the library as a student. I’m not sure what percentage of librarians started as student workers, but I think it’s significant. Some of our student employees today might be librarians in the future. The way that we engage with student employees, the projects that we give them, and the perception that we share of the library may shape future librarians.

Student employees are valuable to libraries. They provide honest feedback, give insight to campus life and culture, and have interesting perspectives. Getting to know the student employees has been one of my favorite parts of being a new librarian. If you haven’t already, take the time to find out more about the student employees in your library. I think we all have something we can learn from them.

Supporting the other side

So far in my research career, I’ve put a lot of stock, energy, and passion around the benefits of hiring and supporting student employment in the library. It’s the topic that gets me most fired up at conferences, the thing I’ll tweet about until I can’t tweet anymore, and one part of my job that I keep coming back to, regardless of my job title. I believe in the potential of undergraduate employees to be crucial part of the library. I believe that if you set the bar high, undergraduates will rise to the occasion. But recently, I’ve realized that in that belief, I had forgotten about the other side: the role of the supervisor.

A few months ago, I worked with a colleague to put together a landscape survey around student employment in our libraries. The goal was to discover who in the library was supervising students and if we could find areas of synergy. We asked questions around hiring, on-boarding, continual training, and barriers to success. As we reviewed the answers, the one I remember the most clearly mentioned that as a supervisor, they felt unprepared because the rules and policies around hiring, training, and supporting student employees were unclear. It’s one of those things they never give you a manual for, you’re just suppose to know. And of course, any manual that might exist is in pieces, scattered throughout HR websites, the library’s intranet pages, and library legends told to you by your colleagues. This stuff isn’t clear or transparent and often requires lots of time to figure out. This was the first moment where I thought, “Okay, building a program is more than just for the students. The supervisors also are an audience to consider.”

Recently, I’ve been reminded of this fact when I was leading an informational session on our internship program. In the session, as we talked about the components of the program, including a new community of practice group I’m building, one participant asked, “Will the supervisors also meet regularly, just like the students?”

After a small beat, I nodded. “Of course.” I was reminded of the survey and once again reminded of my own assumptions around supervision. In reflecting on that situation, I think I assume that people who had studente employees for a long time just knew how to do in a meaningful way. But it’s becoming more clear that just because you have student employees, doesn’t mean that you know everything or feel supported.

And upon even further reflection, I realized that since I started trying to create some program structures for our interns, I’ve done my share of complaining about how I never hear from some interns and that I can’t seem to get through to some of their supervisors. I often chalk it up to structural issues, or a desire for an official announcement to the library about my role with our interns. However, the more I think about this angle, the more I realize part of the problem is that while I logically understand having an intern takes a ton of time and energy, I’m not valuing that idea in practice. I’m not recognizing or finding ways to support my colleagues who do this work. In other aspects of my job, I talk about how I am there to support my colleagues who do student engagement, and this also applies to student employees and their supervisors. This support can happens in many ways — from having intern community of practice meetings to getting the supervisors together to let them know they’re not alone in this. I’m a coordinator and that means both for students and for my colleagues.

For every program that we create to support our student employees, we are also responsible for creating the necessary structures and support for our supervisors. If we want unified programs, complimentary training modules, and a shared vision for student employment in the libraries, we have to create the network for our supervisors. This lines up so nicely with George Kuh’s definition of student engagement, where institutions must be willing to provides the resources and support for these opportunities. If we want meaningful internships or purposeful part-time employment, we have to be willing to provide the support (through professional development, regular meetings, and honest conversations) to our supervisors. Neither the students nor supervisors can do this work alone and both groups need to feel supported in this endeavor.

So where do I go from here? I’m trying to be more intentional and start thinking of how I can help build those structures in my role. I’ve started using the word “support” in talking to supervisors about my role with our interns. I’ll probably add monthly intern supervisor meetings to my calendar this fall, and start to note down obstacles that this group might face (and how we can problem solve together). As the moderator for both groups (students and supervisors), I’m in the best position to provide feedback to either group and translate each other’s needs to one another.  

At your library, how do you (or others) support the supervisors who oversee your student employees? Do supervisors meet on a regular basis? Are they given chances for professional development or ways to gain new supervisory skills? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Featured image by Riccardo Bresciani from Pexels