Tamanisha John/Guest Columnist and FIU Alum
I entered graduate school coming from a low-income immigrant family background, where my relationship with money and budgeting, due to the precariousness of money, was always omnipresent. Thus, struggling to survive on a teaching assistant’s (TA) salary at FIU— while shocking and incredibly upsetting— seemed like a continuation of my life’s story of being poor in the United States. Although a fully-funded graduate student on a teaching assistantship for four years, my time at FIU looked a lot like my life outside of FIU, which included incurring debt and other penalties for being poor, in order to cover bills and bare minimum living expenses like groceries. As a recent Ph.D. graduate from FIU, I want to talk about the importance of long-term bargaining power for addressing the survival needs of graduate students now and in the future at FIU.
The pursuit of education should never be weighed alongside one’s ability to eat or have a roof over their head. I also mean this quite literally. Whereas I initially assumed poverty was just the norm for myself and my friends within my department, the March 2019 expose in PantherNow, revealed otherwise. It is a fact that many graduate students at FIU live in destitution. The most pressing fear of graduate students at FIU is being unable to afford groceries and rent. Like myself and my friends, many graduate students at FIU become debt-burdened via credit cards (international graduate TAs) or loans (domestic graduate TAs), because of insufficient stipends and high student fees— alongside restrictive contracts that prohibit outside employment. Despite the inability to eat and afford a roof over one’s head already being a disaster, some graduate students at FIU are homeless and unable to visit a doctor for their physical and mental health needs. In other words, hardship and suffering are part and parcel of being a graduate student at FIU— even though this doesn’t have to be the case.
At FIU, it is already well known amongst graduate students, administration and those who read employment reviews that the stipend amounts for graduate students are too low and that the university fees are high. For example, as a teaching assistant at FIU, my annual net income (after deductions) was $17, 459.81, whereas my gross salary (before deductions) was $19, 304.34. This meant that per month, I received $1, 454.98 to live in the 14th most expensive city in the U.S. In Miami, average monthly expenses exceed $2,500— when only rent, utilities, internet, gas and food are considered. Even as a TA with my tuition covered, part of the reason that my net pay was about $2,000 lower than my gross pay was due to fees. Fees alone took up more than $1,200 from what I received annually, and when healthcare deductions were factored in, that number only increased. In a real sense, it is the case that without taking into consideration the cost of living in Miami, the TA stipend will only continue to perpetuate graduate student poverty and homelessness, while ensuring FIU graduate students leave the university burdened by high levels of debt that are incurred to compensate for our negligent pay.
Those who have the power to increase stipends on par with standards of living in Miami (indexing graduate student wages) or to approve graduate student unionizing at FIU— which would give graduate students a voice in stipend amount conversation to address the current negligent standard of living— can rectify this situation. Nonetheless, during my time at FIU, I have become very aware of how those in power are resistant, or even hostile, to allowing graduate students a bare minimum survival standard in Miami. Instead of assuming ill-intentions or ill-will, my piece is a plea to the university about why graduate student survival matters for the research we conduct at the university, the students we teach, our overall employment at the university, and our needs as people who are a part of the FIU community.
At public universities like FIU, state labor laws determine the collective bargaining and employee recognition of public/state employees, like teaching assistants. Thus, within the state of Florida, graduate students on teaching assistantships are classified as employees. This is backed by both the IRS, through our tax filing and W-2 system, and myfiu.edu, which classifies teaching assistants as “employees” within our portals and via the giving of employee email addresses to teaching assistants. As employees, Florida state law makes it clear that teaching assistants have the right to collectively bargain through a union which should not be denied or abridged— although that same law denies teaching assistants the right to strike or protest. What this means, is that unlike other universities whose graduate students have been able to secure their right to unionize by striking or protesting— graduate students at FIU cannot exercise that option without being fired, and also possibly expelled.
Due to the law, graduate students at FIU must rely on the goodwill and commitment of FIU administrators and deans practicing what it means to be “worlds ahead” or “real,” to tackle tangible issues faced by members of its community. It is with this understanding that I make this appeal. In the present manifestation of the FIU rebrand, “real triumphs” aims to showcase not only that FIU is “real,” but that it is “tackling real challenges, coming up with real solutions, making a real difference and ultimately, achieving real triumphs.” If FIU wants to live up to its claim of being a “vibrant, student-centered public research university” that offers advanced degrees, its students in advanced degree programs shouldn’t be experiencing poverty, homelessness, and hunger in pursuit of said degrees. That’s not student-centered; It’s blatant student-worker exploitation.
The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community
Photo from FIU Flickr