Students question the American Dream

Published

Photo: Claire Maxwell

Photo: Claire Maxwell

Ross Mathers

University of Glasgow students have expressed concerns over the American-based publishing company, Southwestern.

The company, which recruits students in the UK for summer door-to-door sales, has been accused of misleading students and failing to provide adequate support for those who do go to the USA.

Southwestern claims the average student makes a gross profit of $8000 over a period of approximately thirteen weeks, working at least 72 hours per week.

However, speaking to Guardian, a Glasgow student who completed the programme in 2008 but wished to remain anonymous, said this was an unrealistic figure.

“It’s fine to tell you that but the average student in our group did not make $8000. Some of the group came away in debt — they’d actually lost money from having to go out. Some people owed the company money.”

Alasdair Marshall, who has been Southwestern’s Glasgow Sales Field Officer for several years, said: “Granted, this year and last year were lower for us, but the year before that [2007] we were over $8000 average. So there is the opportunity for people to make that.”

He accepted, however, that this overall average profit included American students who typically achieved better sales figures than their British counterparts.

Figures provided by Southwestern for Glasgow’s 2007 group, one of the most successful teams that year, show that of the twenty-one participants who started, fourteen completed their sales period and just nine of these met the $8000 target.

Established in 1855 in Tennessee, the company has a long history of recruiting students to act as independent contractors, but has faced criticism in recent years, with student unions at the universities of Birmingham, Exeter, Durham, and Bristol taking action to ban the company from their premises.

Fabian Guy Neuner, President of the Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham said: “It had come to our attention that the summer jobs advertised and organised by Southwestern could be seen as exploitation based on the workload, the method of payment and the hidden costs related to the job.”

Furthermore, students have told Guardian that they believed accommodation was pre-organised but on arrival, were faced with knocking on doors to find a place to live.

An anonymous Glasgow student said: “You’d have to ask for stuff, like for instance, somewhere to live. I was staying in someone’s living room and to be honest I kind of felt like I was taking advantage. That was not how it was presented in the beginning.”

Alasdair Marshall, however, explained that it was made clear in the company documentation that accommodation was to be secured just before the students flew out and so it was not always guaranteed.

He said: “I would go out ahead of time and set things up as much as I could. The problem is I’d never be able to get a 100% set up. We just need to be as clear about that as we can.”

Other concerns raised by numerous students include the lack of support and use of certain techniques and advice while abroad.

An anonymous Glasgow student said: “The whole idea during the summer is that you’re not supposed to say anything negative, you’re not supposed to have negative thoughts. So if you’ve had a bad day you’re not supposed to come back and vent it to your roommates.”

A fourth year law student, Mikey MacIntosh, who worked for the company three years ago, said: “There is a certain degree of ‘motivation’ which borders on emotional manipulation. Most of the things which make it a difficult experience are character-building.”

Students also felt discouraged from contacting home during the week.

A third year student told Guardian: “You’re not supposed to have any contact with family and friends — the only day you have to phone is a Sunday. The idea is that you’ve got to get on schedule and if you get off schedule, you don’t sell because you’re thinking about home. I found that difficult.”

Lana Woodson, who has worked in Newcastle recruiting students for Southwestern, and is now based in Glasgow, claimed that this was not a policy she was aware of: “That’s a weird one. I never told my students that they couldn’t contact home.”

One student, who also wished to remain anonymous, explained how they made several attempts to leave the programme: “I told my manager I wanted to go home on weeks one, three and eight. But I felt pressured into staying so it wouldn’t affect the group. We were always told if we didn’t like the whole Southwestern experience they would support us in whatever we decided to do.”

They went on to explain how after booking their early flight home, they did not receive the support they believed they had been promised, saying: “That evening when I got back to my HQ I told him [my manager] I was leaving. That was the last time I have spoken to anyone from Southwestern. I have never had such low self-esteem and confidence in myself.”

Another student explained how they felt they would be unable to leave the programme: “I couldn’t have left. They tie you in — it’s like this allegiance to each other. They say you shouldn’t break up a headquarters, as it’ll affect other people’s summers.”

Explaining the process when someone leaves, Alasdair Marshall said: “At first we will definitely try our hardest to encourage people to keep on going.”

If employees still want to leave they are offered another job through a sister company, also based in the USA.

Lana Woodson told Guardian: “If they leave they know they have to find some place to live and it’s kind of like if they did Camp America and they wanted to quit, they’d have to find their own thing to do.”

She added: “I don’t see why that’s such a big problem. I think it’s just the fact that everything’s on your own.”

Questions of safety have been raised by students reporting they were told not to take mobile phones, so as not to get distracted, despite being alone in unfamiliar areas.

Marshall argues that, while this is indeed the case, they take active steps to avoid potentially dangerous areas, adding that he has encouraged the carrying of rape alarms and that, “[Southwestern] put girls into better areas — typically middle to upper class areas”.

The company, and those students who have had a positive experience, maintain that it is an exceptionally difficult experience and that they make this clear, but that it is worth it.

Mikey MacIntosh said: “Overall my experience of the Southwestern company is a positive one … I came away with good friends … there are certainly some aspects of the company which it’s possible to find fault with as with any company. I worked hard and therefore did very well … but there are obviously people that have had bad experiences of it … I would say that if you do work hard and approach it that way then you will do well on the program.”

An anonymous third year agreed with this to an extent: “They do say it’s going to be really difficult. But they just weren’t totally transparent about things.”

In response, Alasdair Marshall said: “I try and be as transparent as I can because there’s no benefit in not.”

The University Careers Service said although they have received two complaints, these were both dealt with by the company and no further action was taken.

Advising those thinking about working for Southwestern, Katie Cullen, a fourth year student, recognised the benefits of such an experience, saying: “I am glad I did the six weeks out of the twelve that I was supposed to as it has provided me with so much experience and confidence, but I wouldn’t do it again.”