Content warning: This story contains depictions and discussions of mental health crises including depression and suicide that may be difficult for some readers. If you are in crisis, please contact National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.
On Jan. 16, student worker Kaylyn Ahn published an op-ed in The Daily Northwestern sharing her traumatic experiences with Residential Services. In October, Ahn attempted to take her own life after working as a conference assistant managing residential life for the Summer Quarter, and as a resident assistant in the Fall. Ahn expressed how her hours, minimal pay and strenuous expectations led to her mental health decline. The Daily’s Instagram posted excerpts from the article and garnered over 600 likes.
Flyers appeared around campus a few days later with an eye-catching yellow frame containing the words: Student Workers Rights Now. Underneath was a link to Ahn’s article and details of the demonstration happening on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.
As the protest began, dozens of students gathered around the Rock in the cold. They took turns sharing their stories and experiences with Residential Services, climbing atop the painted concrete barrier. RAs handed out a list of demands including adequate compensation, fair working hours and mental health care. The demands for the university are currently being reworked to reflect the needs of a wider network of student workers, according to second-year Weinberg student and RA Aidan Lichamer.
“RAs wish to create a more open dialogue with Residential Services about grievances related to the position,” Lichamer said.
Speaking to the crowd, Lichamer talked about how RA mistreatment is rooted in students’ economic statuses, making them easier targets for exploitation.
“Northwestern capitalizes on our financial vulnerabilities by constantly compounding our massive work schedules with more work and unfair compensation,” Lichamer said to the crowd of students.
In the midst of their call to action, the RAs took time to highlight the success of graduate workers after they voted to unionize last week. An RA speaker asked graduate students for advice on the process of unionizing. PhD candidate Emilie Lozier stepped up.
“It can feel like a really long task,” she said. “But continuing to have those conversations with your co-workers and inviting more of each other into this space is going to move this forward.”
After the protest concluded, some students reflected on Ahn’s op-ed and the details she shared about her mental health crisis.
“I feel like they felt that her getting care would interrupt her duties as an RA, and that’s why she would be terminated from the position and have to move out,” Amber*, an RA whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity, said when speaking about Ahn.
Another RA, Jane*, whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity, added that Ahn had previously asked for help and mental health care from their supervisors.
“If she had left to get care, she would’ve been homeless,” Jane* said.
Amber* described how in the following days after Ahn’s mental health crisis, many RAs including themself volunteered to help make up Ahn’s working hours while she received care.
“She’s on our staff, and we made it clear we were willing to help and take over all her shifts and all of her duties, and they still denied it,” Amber* said. “It’s terrifying that Residential Services doesn’t care.”
During these discussions, more stories that echoed Ahn’s concerns from her op-ed started to arise. Emma*, whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity, worked a desk shift on the day of the protest. They recalled seeing Residential Life’s response to an RA’s attempt to take their life. As of Friday, the student was receiving care in the hospital according to Emma*.
Campus police, CAPS, other RAs and Resident Directors responded to the emergency, Emma* said. They described CAPS staff and RDs at the scene attempting to speak with witnesses in a separate location, despite the witnesses refusing multiple times.
For Emma*, Amber* and Jane*, this incident marked a second fellow RA struggling with a mental health crisis while balancing their intense work schedule – a struggle that Lichamer identified during the protest.
“We are some of the most vulnerable members of this campus,” Lichamer said.
Thumbnail image by Gaby Striano / North by Northwestern.
*Some student names have been changed to preserve anonymity.