A job or a privilege? UF draws criticism for not paying Cicerones

Paul Cleveland, a 20-year-old UF economics junior and Cicerone, talks to a tour group in The Swamp about the football program at the school on Friday. Chris Day / Alligator Staff

Editor’s note: A total of 10 current and former-Cicerones contacted for interviews for this article declined to comment. One Cicerone was included in the story and gave information about some of the Cicerones’ responsibilities. This story has been updated to include a direct quote from her.

Days for Matthew Cheek are not 24 hours long. He can go 36 without stopping.

A typical day for the Santa Fe College student ambassador starts with a 7 a.m. alarm.

He’ll give hour-long tours, attend back-to-back classes until the late afternoon and then head to Student Government Senate and Campus Ambassador meetings in the evenings.

The family of the first-generation college student can’t afford to help pay for his education, but for being a Santa Fe tour guide, he receives a full ride.

With hopes to transfer into UF and become a Florida Cicerone, Cheek, a 21-year-old biology sophomore, said, if selected, he would commit to being an unpaid Cicerone before quitting his love of being a Student Ambassador.

“Even if I didn’t have the means to pay for college, I’d find a way,” Cheek said.

The UF Alumni Association has not paid Florida Cicerones since its founding 50 years ago because it is a service organization, despite other Florida and top 10 public universities offering compensation for their student tour guides.

Matt Hodge, the associate vice president of alumni relations, said Cicerones are not paid because they are no different from any other student organization at UF.

The Alumni Association compensates the Cicerones with a physical space for meetings and by dedicating a full-time employee to work with them. Cicerones volunteer because they have a love for UF and the hours are manageable, Hodge said.

“They have taken a path that not every student is willing to take,” Hodges said. “And that’s one that requires giving back to the University of Florida.”

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A job or a privilege? UF draws criticism for not paying Cicerones

Matthew Cheek, 21-year-old Santa Fe College biology sophomore, is a student ambassador who gives weekly tours, plans and works the college’s graduation and represents the student ambassadors in student government. Cheek said even if he didn’t receive the full tuition scholarship for being a student ambassador, he would still do the job. Courtesy to The Alligator.

The coveted 75 spots

More than 800 students compete for just 75 Cicerone spots.

To be eligible at UF, students must maintain a 2.75 GPA, be members of the Student Alumni Association, be in good standing with UF and pass two rounds of interviews.

The chosen Cicerones will then attend training sessions, two-hour-long meetings every Tuesday in the Spring, retreats and diversity trainings and pay a one-time $50 fee for their uniform of labeled polos.

They’re most known for their skillful backward walking through Turlington Plaza as up to 100 UF hopefuls and their parents follow behind. They point out the “french fries” behind the Marston Science Library as they quickly answer questions during the 90-minute tours that snake along UF’s campus.

They also host prospective athletes, attend events at UF President Kent Fuchs’ house and hand out limited-edition T-shirts during football season, said Marti Stein, a 22-year-old UF nutritional sciences senior and Cicerone.

“I didn't expect a paycheck. I have always looked at it more as an opportunity to do good and share what makes UF great," Stein said. "I didn't even think about being awarded for it.”

Their jobs are comparable to Florida State University’s student guides, who are paid, wrote Julie Rubin, FSU’s associate director of admissions, in an email. The University of Central Florida pays its guides Florida’s minimum wage, which is $8.46 an hour, said Luke van Blaricom, UCF’s senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions.

Cicerones must work a minimum of 20 hours per semester for at least three semesters.

If the Alumni Association were to pay one Cicerone an $8.46 minimum wage, the Cicerone would earn just over $500 before taxes.

That would add up to a minimum budget of about $38,000 to pay the 75 Cicerones for part-time work for three semesters. In comparison, the Alumni Association reported having more than $3.5 million of total revenue in its most recent tax return documents.

‘Doing it from our heart’

About 70 to 100 students work underneath the Dean of Students Office as Campus Diplomats, said 21-year-old Cristina Cantero, a Campus Diplomat.

Cantero, a UF materials science and engineering senior, spends about two hours a week working as a Campus Diplomat. In a busy week, she works about five hours.

Cantero said she doesn’t need to be paid for something that isn’t time-consuming.

“It sounds cheesy, but we’re doing it from our heart,” Cantero said.

Campus Diplomats and Cicerones’ unpaid labor has inspired dozens of memes mocking UF’s decision to not pay student workers.

Josh Perez, a 21-year-old Campus Diplomats executive director, said the jokes aren’t wrong. Students know there is no pay when they sign up. Instead, Perez said they sign up to gain professional connections and preparation.

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A job or a privilege? UF draws criticism for not paying Cicerones
Posted to Swampy UF memes for top ten public teens, a student Facebook group, in November 2018, this meme by Donovan Lopez received almost 1,000 comments and reactions. Many of the students tagged in the comments are cicerones and Campus Diplomats. Courtesy to The Alligator

Just seven miles away at Santa Fe College, campus ambassadors get full tuition scholarships for 12 credit hours each semester, instead of hourly pay, Cheek said.

The 12 Santa Fe Ambassadors work nearly 100 hours in the year.

$3 an hour

Preview staffers work nearly 1,000 hours in one summer.

Preview, the Dean of Students Office’s freshman and transfer student orientation program, is another student involvement organization mentioned in the student labor conversation.

Despite being paid, some Preview staffers think the wages are not enough.

Rachel Wisolmerski, a 19-year-old UF psychology sophomore, spent more than 70 hours a week working during the summer after paying out of pocket for a mandatory class in preparation for Preview. Preview pays staffers a $2,700 stipend, a dorm room in Broward Hall and $863.50 in meal tickets and declining balance for food, Wisolmerski said.

When the cash is divided over the average 70-to-85-hour work week, the pay is about $3 an hour. With the food and dorm money included, Wisolmerski said it equals to about $6 an hour.

Preview staffers sign a contract that forbids them from holding a job that would conflict with the program, Wisolmerski said.

After three rounds of interviews, 44 Preview staffers were picked. The competitive nature of student organizations will keep them unpaid or low-paying jobs, Wisolmerski said.

“Whether you pay the Cicerones or not, people are going to apply, and people are going to get in because it’s an awesome experience,” she said.

Not everyone can do it

Some students and alumni disagree with these jobs being volunteer-based because of the amount of money UF makes each year.

Andrew Cushen, a 22-year-old UF alumnus, wrote in a February 2018 opinion column to The Alligator that the idea of unpaid labor disguised as volunteer work disadvantages low-income students.

“Unpaid labor takes privilege, and we need to see students without privilege given the opportunity to participate and succeed in every dimension of campus life,” Cushen wrote.

Cushen said he thought it unacceptable of UF to “position this as a privilege instead of a job.”

Jeremiah Tattersall, an Alumni Association member and Alachua County Labor Coalition lead organizer, said this is a repeat example of UF’s inadequate labor practices, similar to when hourly workers went unpaid while campus was closed during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“(Being a Cicerone) opens a lot of doors,” Tattersall said. “But what doors are being opened, and for whom, if the only people who that’s really accessible to are people who have the kind of incomes where they can work for free?”

Staff writer Taylor Roth contributed to this report.

Contact Angela DiMichele at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @angdimi.

Angela, a Jacksonville native, joined the Alligator staff in summer 2018 as a general assignment reporter. After two semesters of covering the university, metro, commission and UF Student Government beats, she is now the features editor.