By: Gerard Albert III/Staff Writer
A growing number of FIU graduate students are struggling to focus on their classes, buy groceries and pay bills with the stipends paid to them by the University’s Graduate School, which have not been raised in over 10 years.
The struggle has forced students to live in crowded houses, sacrifice their mental and physical health and leave the University because they cannot afford to stay in school. Andres Gil, the dean of UGS, has received around 200 letters describing anxiety, depression, homelessness and unaffordable doctor visits by upset graduate students.
Mitra Ahmadinejad, head of the Graduate and Professional Student Committee of the Student Government Council at the Modesto Maidique Campus, collected almost 200 letters from students in different graduate programs and sent them to Gil in an attempt to start a conversation about increasing the stipends.
She also emailed Michael R. Heithaus, the dean of Arts, Sciences and Education; John Volakis, the dean of Engineering and Computing; and John F. Stack, Jr., the dean of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs about the issue.
Student Media requested interviews with UGS officials and was redirected to Media Relations. Media Relations then responded via email, saying that UGS was aware of the problem.
UGS is planning to raise the stipends, according to emails sent to Student Media from Provost Kenneth Furton and UGS, but offered no specifics on how much, where the funding would come from or when the increase would occur.
“…There is a need to increase the amount of stipends,” said Andres Gil, dean of the University Graduate school via email through Media Relations. “The plan is to begin a multiyear process of increasing the minimum amount of stipends.”
The University waives tuition for graduate students who receive assistantships, but charges them around $900 in fees every semester, according to documents published online by UGS. Students working as assistants and international students are restricted financially because they cannot get jobs off campus because of student visa regulations and work contracts.
Graduate students who get hired as graduate assistants must sign an employee agreement prohibiting them from working outside of campus. Violation of this rule can result in their tuition waiver being revoked.
The problem goes beyond Miami, where students deal with above average cost of living, and universities across the country are seeing a decline in graduate student enrollment, according to research done by Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based organization whose members include 500 colleges and universities including FIU.
A meeting scheduled for last November between UGS and deans from each school was cancelled but members of UGS are currently meeting with FIU administration to come up with solutions.
However, Ahmadinejad said that Lidia Kos, associate dean of UGS, instructed her not to disclose details about the meeting to Student Media.
Deans set the stipend amount for their respective schools, ranging from the base amount of $19,000 a year given to CASE and SIPA students, to the $27,000 given to the school of business, according to Ahmadinejad.
Several deans made themselves available for interview but the College of Business and CASE declined to comment except through Media Relations.
One proposal would waive the almost $1,800 in fees that graduate students pay annually, which is higher than undergraduate fees by hundreds of dollars.
Some students said they were unaware of how expensive the fees were until they got to the University. The University’s OneStop website lists the fee estimate at $195 per academic year for graduate students which is misleading for students that get assistantships. Fees, including athletic, health, parking and mandatory health insurance are closer to $900 per semester, according to documents published by UGS.
Some graduate students told Student Media they take small cash-only jobs just to get by. Tutoring, fixing cars, and yard work are ways that students struggling financially afford to buy groceries every month. They said although they would get a job if they could, their rigorous schedules would make it nearly impossible.
Hooman Torabi, 29, is studying chemistry and came to Miami from Iran to work with professors on a treatment for cancer. He has lived in the U.S. for three years and has never been to the movies because he can’t afford a ticket on his budget.
Torabi said his stipend is “just enough to survive.” He scans grocery store coupons to find deals on food, often visiting three or four stores to make his money last for another week. His last non-essential purchase was a pair of jeans, which he waited until Black Friday to buy.
Letters reviewed by Student Media show students saying they are ashamed to ask their parents for money. Some families don’t have money to give their children, and in countries like Iran, sanctions make it difficult to transfer money to the U.S.
International students face more limitations because they cannot take out loans, forcing them to seek other forms of support.
Some international students open up credit cards and abuse the introductory period with zero interest. They knowingly spend more than they can pay back and transfer debt from one card to the next. Valeriia Popova, a political science student from Russia, has opened five credit cards since moving to the United States.
“If something out of the ordinary or an emergency happens, you’re screwed,” Popova said to Student Media.
Domestic students face similar issues.
Shawn O’Melia is 23 and working on his masters degree in higher education administration. O’Melia earns about $1,100 a month working as a graduate assistant. The Michigan native said financial worries have plagued him since moving to Miami. He described a night spent buying McDonald’s as splurging, and worries about taking dates out and not being able to pick up the check.
“Money has consumed my life since grad school,” said O’Melia, who estimates he is now $16,000 dollars in debt – mostly from housing expenses.
“I’m super worried about paying back loans,” he said. “But loans help with ‘what if’ scenarios.”
Scenarios like Hurricane Irma, which blasted South Florida in summer 2017, caused O’Malia to temporarily relocate and deal with costs of emergency preparations including groceries and other supplies.
O’Malia is unenthusiastic about the proposed solution of waiving fees and believes increasing the stipend or helping students find housing would benefit students more.
Alexis Mook, a doctoral student in legal psychology from Pittsburgh, is in the third year of her five-year program at FIU. Mook is concerned about how she will come up with the money to pay for her final year because the UGS only waives tuition for four years. Students must find grants and other outside sources of income to pay for their final year.
Mook said she pays almost $2,000 a year in fees and while eliminating them is not the best solution, it would help.
“At this point, I’ll take anything,” Mook said.
Graduate students who came forward to share their situation admitted to dealing with depression and anxiety which has heavily affected their motivation and focus in school work. Uncertainty about affording groceries and basic needs every month is often the main thing on their minds in class and at work.
Other than affecting their mental health, students said that the UGS’ non-competitive, low stipend levels are harming the University’s recruitment and retention efforts.
Alexander Agoulnik, graduate program director for the College of Medicine, told Student Media that the stipend, which is below the national average, is hurting their recruiting ability.
Jeffrey Boyd, associate dean for basic research and graduate programs for the College of Medicine, said that although the stipend amount is low, students know this from the get-go.
“Students know what the stipend is before they accept so students can’t typically complain about something they accepted,” said Boyd to Student Media. “We all acknowledge it is too low. It’s a political thing, only UGS can change it.”
O’Melia said that most of the candidates who attended orientation with him two years ago declined to study at FIU because of the low stipend levels. He came from Michigan seeking FIU’s cultural diversity, but now believes he could’ve made a better choice.
O’Melia is almost finished with his degree, but after taking out so many loans said he would reconsider his decision to study at FIU.
“Looking back I would’ve highly considered other schools,” he said.
Additional reporting by Valentina Palm/Staff Writer
Yep, we are struggling.