Program assistants for Boston University’s My Summer high school program, required to live in Warren Towers over the summer without air conditioning, have voiced concerns of being overworked, underpaid and the safety of the program’s students after several were rushed to Student Health Services for heat-related illnesses.
Programs such as Academic Immersion, Summer Challenge and the Summer Journalism Academy allow high school students to take classes at BU during the summer, with some even offering college credit. These students are housed in Warren Towers for up to six weeks, with the cost ranging from $1,700 to $10,556 depending on the program, tuition, fees and room and board. Each visit to SHS costs $25.
In response to complaints, summer program administrators have made improvements for Summer 2023, including condensing the program’s duration, increasing the amount of cooling stations in Warren, moving back dates to avoid a heatwave and increasing pay for program assistants.
The program assistants must supervise the high school students because they are minors, help with move-in, plan events and fulfill on-call responsibilities.
Sage Winkler, a junior in Questrom School of Business, was a program assistant for the Summer Challenge program. Winkler said she took classes over the summer and originally wanted the job because it offered free housing for eight weeks and a weekly stipend.
“I was able to stay on campus for free,” Winkler said. “But there was no air conditioning, which was a big issue. It got really hot.”
While the living conditions in Warren Towers were tolerable at the start of the summer, Winkler said everything changed after a heat wave hit Boston at the end of July.
“Some kids had to put mattresses down in the dining hall so they could sleep there during the night because the rooms are so hot,” she said. “Some kids ended up actually getting heat stroke and having to go to the emergency room because of it.”
Julia Kapusta, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, was a program assistant for the Summer Journalism Academy. She said students who suffered from the heat were allowed to sleep in the dining hall since it was one of the only areas in Warren Towers with air conditioning.
“They opened up the Warren Dining Hall and they put the blue mattresses on the ground of the dining hall for people to sleep on because students were complaining so much about the heat and not being able to sleep,” Kapusta said.
She added that she personally took three students to SHS for heat-related illnesses and she also went to SHS herself after experiencing food poisoning. Kapusta said she had to beg SHS to give her a room with air conditioning while she recovered. Eventually, they allowed her to stay in 32 Harry Agganis Way for three days.
“I’m sitting in the Student Health Services, and it almost feels like I’m begging them to give me a room with AC so I can sleep. And I just feel like I shouldn’t have to do that,” she said. “I kind of felt like I was having to ask for the bare minimum.”
Another program assistant for the Summer Challenge Program, who asked to remain anonymous, said many of the Summer Challenge assistants were not told about the full extent of the job ahead of time and were told they could have other commitments outside of the job. However, this quickly became unfeasible.
“My student had an emergency in the night so I had to call BUPD and go with them to the ER and be with them for the next 12 hours. And then the same happened two days later with another student who fainted because of the heatwave in Warren Towers, and there’s no AC or fan either,” they said. “They passed out and we had to take them to the ER, so I went again with them. So that week was a lot.”
The program assistant added that since they were paid through a weekly stipend, they were not compensated for the additional hours they spent taking students to SHS or the emergency room.
“It was not an hour pay by case it was just a stipend and when we brought this up, [our supervisors] were like ‘sorry, it’s kind of our bad’ but they didn’t really do anything about it,” they said.
Myat Khine, a sophomore in CAS, was a program assistant for Summer Challenge. Khine said she could only work 20 hours a week, which was the hourly max advertised by the program, because she is an international student. Quickly though, Khine said it felt they were working well above that limit.
“It was kind of difficult to differentiate between when I’m on the job and when I’m off the job,” she said. “Sometimes the kids would kind of get into your personal time and I think [our supervisors] just asked us to be there more than they initially said they would. So in that aspect, I don’t think the pay was fair, just because it wasn’t the same as what was stated on the paper.”
Khine said the program assistants for the Summer Challenge program had to put together a dance for the high school students at the end of each session in the Student Activities Office gym and the Metcalf Ballroom — something they did not know was expected of them.
“The program managers they were like, ‘Alright, so we’re gonna throw a dance. You guys are gonna watch the kids for three hours, four hours in that cramped little gym. No AC, nothing. And we’re gonna give you this much money. Just Amazon anything that you want,’” Khine said. “Nothing was laid out for us. So it was just up to us program assistants to basically plan the whole thing and facilitate it.”
Program assistants said they had some high school students leave on the first day of the program while others left during the program because of the living conditions in Warren Towers.
“Before I even met one of my students, their parent had been calling me on my cell phone and was yelling that it was way too hot and they could not live in this condition. So they pulled her out and I never ended up meeting the student while I was working and so a lot of people were not happy,” Winkler said. “A lot of kids ended up leaving.”
She added that one student even flew back home after passing out from a severe heatstroke because their parents felt it was not worth it for them to stay at BU.
Many of the program assistants said they felt they were underprepared for the program and were not taught how to address certain situations that came up often.
“They fully taught us about being kind to students for two whole days, but didn’t really tell us what this whole thing would be,” the anonymous program assistant said. “They didn’t prepare us at all and we just kind of felt like being thrown into it. By the end of the summer, literally everybody was so burnt out.”
Khine said while the supervisors were sympathetic to the program assistants’ feedback, they did not do anything to change the situation despite their repeated requests.
“The communication was there, but the aftermath of the communication didn’t seem to exist. After our first session, we would obviously provide feedback and be like, ‘These things are not working’ and [the supervisors would] be like, ‘Alright, we’re going to take those into account.’ So the talk was there, but the walk wasn’t,” she said.
Kapusta said her supervisor was very understanding, but couldn’t do much to resolve the situation.
“My supervisor was also handling [taking students to SHS] the best she could,” she said. “But it was very much out of my supervisor’s control to try to see if there was a different building to put students in.”
BU Spokesperson Colin Riley said the University has housed high school students in Warren Towers during the summer for many decades and that the StuVi dorms and Myles Standish Hall are reserved for BU summer students and other University events and conferences.
“Weather is something we don’t have a whole lot of control over, but we do try to monitor it and take appropriate steps and even last year, there were daily calls regarding what were the conditions in Warren Towers and trying to alleviate the situation,” he said.
Riley added the University will continue to house high school students in Warren Towers this summer and will add additional water filtration stations, a fan in every room and more cooling stations on the fourth floor in response to the heat problems faced last summer.
Burton Glass, director of the Summer Journalism Academy, said program assistants were told they were not expected to act as social workers but rather camp counselors for the high school students prior to taking the job.
“I understand that they felt a certain amount of responsibility because they’re living in the same hallways with the students and trying to make their time in the summer program as positive as possible,” he said. “So I understand that feeling, but that was not part of their job description to be health experts.
Glass said this year the program is making a few changes for program assistants in response to the issues they faced. The program will now be one three week session, as opposed to two separate three week sessions, and will start earlier in the summer on June 26 and end July 14 to avoid another heat wave.
“It’s never great to hear that our program assistants had a negative experience, but we really appreciate the feedback that I remember hearing last summer, and it allows us to make improvements and we’re doing it,” Glass said.
Additionally, an email acquired by The Daily Free Press sent from Ermolande Jean-Simon, the program manager for the summer journalism academy and marketing and events specialist for the College of Communication, wrote that program assistants this summer will receive a weekly stipend of $750 and there will be additional staff — one program coordinator and four program assistants.
“It felt like a scaffolding. It was put together so fast just for the sake of it but there is no thought behind it,” Khine said.“It didn’t feel organized. It felt like they just got together, talked for a couple of hours and were like, ‘Aight let’s recruit some people and call it a day.’”
Winkler said she did not recommend the program to her friends who asked about it.
“I’ve had friends that are trying to get free housing for the summer and they have asked me [about the program] because they knew that I did the job last summer and they were like, ‘Oh, what was it like?’ and I’m like, ‘No, you definitely should not do it.’”
Khine added that while she enjoyed spending time with the high school students, she would not take this job again unless it was absolutely necessary.
“I think the intention behind the program is great. It’s a good enrichment, experiential program, only if they would put more thought into it,” Khine said. “I feel like BU does have a lot to offer and two weeks is not a long time, but enough time for you to have a good experience.”