Raleta Summers lived the life of a typical graduate student — grading papers, taking classes, going out with friends — before returning to sleep in her car.
Summers, 32, an N.C. native studying early childhood education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., spent last semester in limbo between being highly educated and essentially homeless.
She never told anyone.
Summers, a second-year Ph.D. student and veteran elementary school teacher, is one of an emerging crop of graduate students grappling with financial burdens that force them to rely on government assistance — a reality that etches a grimmer portrait of the proverbial poor graduate student eating Ramen noodles.
Summers signed up for food stamps last March and is still receiving benefits.
“From the outside looking in, most people wouldn’t believe me if I told them I receive benefits,” Summers said. “I still get up every day, and I comb my hair and put on real clothes and go into my office.”
Student loan debt is no longer the sole phantom haunting graduate students. Hunger is a sharper, more immediate blow.
President Barack Obama signed the federal farm bill Friday, trimming the food stamp budget by
$8 billion and tightening eligibility standards for college students.
State officials said they don’t anticipate an immediate impact on N.C. food stamp recipients.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the state’s food stamps program, doesn’t track the number of graduate students on food stamps.
But an Associated Press analysis released last month revealed that working-age Americans now make up a bulk of food stamp recipients, and those with some college education comprise the fastest growing group of recipients since 1980.
Summers, a teaching assistant, earns a stipend of $15,000 a year. Although her department covers her tuition, her annual income barely scrapes her living expenses.
Stipends are considered unearned income, said Kirsti Clifford, spokeswoman for N.C. DHHS.
Some graduate students qualify for food stamps even if their department pays their tuition, but they must meet income thresholds in order to be eligible.
After weighing costs, Summers gave up her Virginia apartment last semester and planned to commute to school in Norfolk from her house in North Carolina. But the commute became unmanageable, and she began living out of her car, the gym, the library. She has since found living arrangements.
Summers said she ultimately doesn’t regret her decision to go back to school.
“I (once) thought to myself, this was the worst decision of my life,” she said. “It’s not because of the financial situation, it’s more the program I’m in. They changed my degree program in the midst of me taking it. Little things like that just make the sacrifices I’ve made not seem like it’s worth it.”
At UNC, some graduate students carry the same burden. Some do so quietly, the next meal on their minds as they grade essays, conduct research and give lectures.
Graduate students bear the brunt of University work, said
A., a UNC first-year Ph.D. student in the School of Education who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.
“Grad students are the backbone of this University,” she said. “We’re students, so we’re consumers, we pay to be here. We’re teachers … we’re researchers — all that research money that comes in wouldn’t be utilized if it weren’t for graduate students. People don’t seem to recognize that, and they undervalue us.”
Aesha Greene, assistant director of graduate and professional programs in UNC’s Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, said every year, a handful of students request proof of financial aid to submit to the state to determine whether they qualify for assistance, but the University does not track these requests.
Students in need can seek temporary relief from the Graduate and Professional Student Federation’s emergency fund, a recently launched resource that helps offset unexpected expenses.
A., who is unmarried with no children, applied for food stamps this semester after first receiving them in 2012. Her graduate assistantship does not cover tuition, and her $15,000 annual income skirts the living wage in Chapel Hill: $18,804 before taxes for a household of one.
Graduate assistantships are not held to the University’s minimum stipend, which is $15,200 a year for doctoral students, A. said. The University increased the minimum by $500 last year.
A. earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UNC. The Old Well and the Smith Center are hallmarks of home.
But she said if she could do it again, she’d trade sentimentality for security and choose a private school with more leeway for financial support.
A. said the University should draw more support from alumni donations.
She said the humanities are particularly undervalued.
“Last time I checked, I didn’t take a vow of poverty,” she said. “People say, ‘You chose the humanities, you knew that wouldn’t earn you a lot of money,’ yet we require all freshmen to take English.”
Sometimes, when she pulls out her food stamps card at the grocery store, she gets a look.
“There certainly is judgment about it,” she said. “But I don’t need to be ashamed about it. I’m not the one who’s paying me below a living wage.”
A. said the swelling number of educated people on food stamps reveals a nuanced face of American poverty.
“Poverty doesn’t discriminate based on how much education you have,” A. said. “People who think they know what poverty looks like haven’t been poor.”
Out-of-state tuition costs from earning her previous degrees at UNC have mired her in six-figure debt.
A. said the approved expenses for food stamps do not accommodate all student needs, including Internet access.
And those with families bear a particular strain.
B., a first-year UNC Ph.D. student who also asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said he was denied food stamps, but his wife and 3-year-old daughter receive Women, Infants and Children benefits, and his daughter is on Medicaid.
“If you have a family, it’s just kind of mind-boggling how you’re supposed to make it,” he said.
B., a TA who earns $15,500 a year plus $900 a month in GI Bill benefits when school is in session, said the University should raise TA pay.
“They just assume if you’re a grad student, you’re just going to have to suffer for two to seven years,” he said. “Maybe they think it’s a character builder, but it’s not really a way to operate.”
There are resources to help students like B., including a child care scholarship that covers the bulk of his daughter’s preschool costs, which he could otherwise not afford.
But he sees the pitfalls of financial stress firsthand at the dinner table each night.
“Having to scrimp on the groceries, realizing that after dinner, no one’s really full … I just hate to see my family go hungry,” he said. “There’s no real rational reason to force grad students through this regimen of poverty.”
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