My PHE Was Worth More Than $1,000 A Year

by Brandon Camhi ’16

Stanford’s most selfless students deserve better than 58% of the minimum wage.

I tried independently clipping my toenails for years before I came to Stanford in 2012. However, I never got it right without parental help. Clipping toenails with a visual disability is no easy feat because it’s hard to see each nail. In Larkin, I often struggled for thirty minutes or longer to clip my toenails, my door shut and locked. My parents could no longer help round out the edges.

Most other freshmen clipped their toenails in minutes. Yet behind closed doors, each of us faces challenges adjusting to college life. Trivial issues like clipping toenails; all-consuming ones like battling loneliness.

It’s important to solve problems independently. I perfected the toenail routine on my own, to my internal satisfaction. However, sometimes problems are too big to tackle alone. Luckily, I lived two doors down from one of the most wonderful people I have met at Stanford. My PHE Taylor, or T the PHE, was there for me during my freshman year as I faced personal challenges. Larkin’s other residents would say the same about her.

Each year PHEs open their rooms and hearts to freshmen residents. They help freshmen with serious mental and physical health issues. They perform much of the same work as RAs. In return, Stanford gives them a pittance.

Residential Education pays RAs $10,000. Vaden pays PHEs a mere $1,000 for the entire school year. Even America’s inflation-adjusted minimum wage in 1938 – the first minimum wage in US history – was higher than a PHE’s current hourly salary of $4.17. This is based on a conservative estimate of eight hours of work a week over thirty weeks.

My PHE provided hourly value far beyond 58% of the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. I bet yours did too.

Clipping toenails was not the only problem my visual disability caused me. I can’t see facial expressions well, inhibiting my ability to detect and adjust to nonverbal social cues. This wasn’t a problem in my small hometown where I knew everyone well, but it initially reduced my ability to connect with people at Stanford. It also took me awhile to find things at Stanford I was truly passionate about – and these two forces set me up for some rough patches during the year.

Taylor noticed. She reached out to chat, and we talked through the issues I faced while sitting on her futon. By the end of freshman year, I finally felt positioned for success at Stanford, confident I could shape my future. And I owe a lot to Taylor for helping me along the way. I cannot assign an exact dollar amount, but I know her help was worth more than 58% of the minimum hourly wage the federal government says companies must give their workers.

My story highlights one of the biggest ways PHEs have helped thousands of Stanford freshmen over the years. The University addresses mental health problems in two ways: proactively engaging students and reacting to events. A model based solely on reactions is dangerous because it’s impossible to help someone who has already made an irreversible decision. Preemptive engagement is essential. PHEs form this ‘first line of defense’ by living with students and applying their specialized training.

Despite my own experiences, I didn’t immediately agree that Stanford should increase PHEs’ salaries when I heard how low their wages are. Sure I was outraged. However, my market-oriented side raised no objections – to your complete lack of surprise, given you’re reading this article in the Stanford Review. After all, the market for PHEs still clears at this low wage, and Stanford can fill all positions with qualified applicants at this salary level. I do not blame businesses for trying to cut costs as much possible while still delivering services, and I found it hard to blame Stanford for doing the same.

However, I changed my mind. Even the most staunch proponents of the free market are wary of abuse from strong monopolies. By necessity, Stanford is the only entity that gives students the ability to obtain the PHE experience, and it will not lose its monopoly or pricing leverage. Our university exploits its power by paying PHEs lower than 1938’s inflation-adjusted minimum wage.

The Administration’s abuse of its PHEs is also hypocritical given the University’s mission. Leland and Jane Stanford designed an institution that would prepare students for “direct usefulness” in making the world a better place. Stanford’s mission appeals to our angels, to our sense of civic duty, and to our obligations to each other.

I do not agree with the student body’s predominantly liberal views and have publicly critiqued them countless times during last three years. But I nevertheless respect my classmates’ sincere desire to improve the world and advance Stanford’s mission. I have no similar respect for an Administration that, despite years of proclaiming care for its students, exploits those who put others before themselves to make Stanford a better place.

It’s time to stop short-changing our PHEs.

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