UT's graduate students deserve summer support

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Photo Credit: Hilda Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

“It’s practically impossible.” 

That’s how Daniel Nourry, an international graduate student in Spanish and Portuguese, describes finding summer work in Austin.

Financial woes are a primary barrier for graduate students and academic hopefuls. One-third of graduate students admitted to UT turned down their offer due to financial reasons. Many fall deeper and deeper into student debt as they strive for higher education as a means to secure their futures. On average, only half of students entering Ph.D. programs will go on to graduate.  

Some departments at UT do not offer summer employment for graduate students, while others place maximum employment opportunities at one summer only. Other organizations’ funding is based on a nine-month frame and must send their student workers home during the summer months. 

Within their fields however, grad students are encouraged to present at conferences and complete field research — both expensive prospects. Graduate students have minimal financial security during the nine-month employment contract typically offered by UT. As the summer months approach, that security sinks to zero. 

In an effort to diversify academia and create greater educational opportunities for all, UT should provide greater support for graduate students, specifically during summertime. This can be done through one-on-one summer employment assistance, increased summertime scholarship and grant opportunities and 12-month stipends instead of the current nine-month contracts.

The graduate student struggle has inspired the creation of forces such as Underpaid at UT, a group devoted to raising the wages of graduate workers and ensuring year-round healthcare. The organization reports that “65% of graduate student stipends are already below $18,000 for a full academic year, whereas the UT Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid calculates non-tuition living expenses to be $25,000 for a year on average.” 

This pre-tuition estimate means students are not able to save for their unemployed months, and many are forced to find work outside of academia, sapping the time needed to become competitive on the job market. Even worse, many students may be forced to halt their studies altogether.

International grad students face the same summertime economic worries, though they must grapple with stricter employment regulations. They are faced with a conundrum in which they cannot find jobs in the greater Austin area or at UT, and cannot afford to return to their home countries for work. Nourry said in an email that the summer marks the change from low wages to fending for oneself.  

“My ability to work is tied to my student visa, so it isn’t as simple as going out into Austin and looking for a job,” Nourry said. “It is my understanding that any work I do or job I get outside of UT-Austin requires approval both from the University International Office and the (Department of Homeland Security).”

There are many steps that can be taken to help resolve this widespread issue. UT should offer 12-month contracts for all AIs and TAs, guarantee employment or fellowships for all graduate students to cover the summer months, or pay a greater nine-month stipend to allow for sufficient savings to survive three months of unemployment. 

In a statement from the Graduate School at UT, “strategic solutions for enhancing student support at the University” are being considered through the Graduate Education Task Force, created in December 2018. “Summer support is one of several factors being considered, including 12-month health insurance coverage for students on TA and fellowship appointments,” a spokesperson said in the statement, adding that these decisions mostly lie with schools and departments.

The task force’s official recommendations for solutions will not be released until December 2019, but the force sent a preliminary request for an extra $10 million dollars in funding to offer assistance to graduate students in the 2019-2020 school year. This funding, approved May 23, 2019, will go toward providing “tuition and compensation adjustments in areas of greatest need (for qualifying teaching assistant and assistant instructor positions).”

Although the Graduate School mentions summer support in their statement, the preliminary request for action makes no mention of graduate students’ summer employment blight. Students should contact the Graduate School and the Graduate Education Task Force to ensure that graduate students at UT receive transparent support for year-round quality of life.

Pending the enactment of these recommendations, students can visit the online resources found through the Graduate School to find out about job postings. Until then, as Nourry said, “What starts here changes the world, and everyone but graduate students benefit from it.”

Burns Passafiume is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.