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The Daily Tar Heel

Graduate students press for social and financial change

Abigail Lee, an English 105 teacher, helps freshman Jonathan Diamantis with an assignment on Tuesday afternoon.

Abigail Lee, an English 105 teacher, helps freshman Jonathan Diamantis with an assignment on Tuesday afternoon.

In her first year as a graduate student at UNC, Abigail Lee applied for and received food stamps. 

Lee is a graduate student in the English department, whose stipend for both semesters is about $16,000. She is also supplementing her income as an English teaching assistant, an academic tutor and a biostatistics student assistant. At the end of the year, nearly $2,000 goes directly back to the University in the form of student fees. 

Lee is a member of the Workers Union at UNC, which aims to bring workers’ dissatisfaction to the attention of the administration. Julia Longo, a graduate student in UNC’s archeology program, is also in the union and is paid $15,700 per year before student fees.

The stipend amounts in the story are all self-reported to The Daily Tar Heel. The living wage in Orange County is over $23,000. 

“I’m a single adult, and I can barely afford to live,” Longo said. “I’ve heard stories from other workers who have families and dependents who are struggling to keep afloat.”

Professors who advise graduate students in their departments are aware of the financial burden that is inflicted upon their advisees. Megan Matchinske is a professor in the English department and currently advises four graduate students.

“Teaching will provide them with pay, but it’s an embarrassingly low amount,” Matchinske said. “Our graduate students do the lion’s share of the amount of work, writing across the curriculum and teaching those classes. ”

While Longo, Lee and many others are frustrated with the fees and low stipends, not every graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences feels the same. Ricardo Martinez-Schuldt is finishing his final year as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and said his approximate $18,000 stipend allows for a comfortable life. He also teaches in the summer if he can’t get grant money, and said his stipend has increased a couple times since he joined the department in 2012. 

“I would argue we get a decent size stipend,” Martinez-Schuldt said. “My quality of life has gone up a little bit (from undergraduate). I am aware there are other departments whose stipends are much less than what we get, and that would make it much more difficult. For me, it would change things quite a bit.”

In the chemistry department, graduate students David Abraham and Leah Bowers have stipends nearing $25,000. Although they both agree their stipend allows them to live comfortably, the impact of the student fees does not go unnoticed. They take 8 percent out of Bowers’ and Abraham’s income, and over 12 percent for Lee and Longo.

“I’m not entirely opposed to paying for things that benefit the undergraduate population though. We’re all part of this community,” Bowers said.

But Graduate and Professional Student Federation President Madelyn Percy said the North Carolina General Assembly has made it difficult for UNC campuses to change graduate student stipends because of undergraduate tuition. In Article 14 of General Provisions as to Tuition and Fees in Certain State Institutions, the NCGA requires that tuition for in-state undergraduates “will remain constant or decrease during the tuition period.” 

"The NCGA has made it very difficult for campuses to raise grad students' stipends because they are very strict about how undergraduate tuition cannot change for in-state residences," Percy said. 

Additionally, graduate students often feel helpless and overworked, said Lee. This makes the relationship between advisers and advisees difficult to navigate, and finding the balance between boss and adviser can lead to toxic power dynamics.

“When you talk with other workers who work closely with mentors, one of the main things that come up is, ‘My adviser did this that’s messed up and I don’t know what to do,’” Lee said. “It’s really difficult to report on faculty because you have to report to other faculty. There isn’t really accountability.”

The reporting system within each department typically resides with the department chair. Jonathan Lees, the chairperson of the geology department, helps arbitrate issues within the department. 

“When I was a faculty member, I hardly knew about all of the problems students can have,” Lees said. “My job is to help students get through the program so we either solve the problem or help them find another adviser.”

Lees said not even one in 20 students has problems that require adviser switching, a relatively uncommon practice. With his students, he has high expectations. He requests that they work hard and forget about weekends, but that is his way of inspiring them to complete their research. 

Lees attributed the common conception of bad relationships between advisers and advisees as simply students letting off steam and de-stressing over a beer, complaining about their adviser.

Abigail Lee said there are still systemic problems in adviser-advisee relationships that can be solved by mandated training for professors before they take on graduate students. 

“(Professors) just get these students working for and with them, but not everyone has proper training on how to be both a manager and a mentor,” Lee said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can encourage faculty to equip themselves to avoid and reduce issues with these power dynamics.”

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Jonathan Lees believes the social issues graduate students have, such as stress and depression, are best left to the other resources the University has. 

“When I became chair, more students than I ever could have imagined came through this door with personal problems,” Lees said. “We don’t have training for how to support people. I’m a scientist, I don’t really understand. So I turn them to another part of the University.”

While these social and financial issues continue to burden the average graduate student at UNC, the Workers Union and GPSF have been calling attention towards problems that the UNC administration can fix. They advocate that, although stipends are not easily adjusted, student fees for graduate students can be decreased or even eliminated, and the University should begin providing workshops and training for advisors.  

“There’s all this dire gloom and doom stuff around UNC and graduate work,” Lee said. “What I’ve found organizing with the Workers Union is that we (graduate workers) love the work we do. We love our students, we love teaching, and we’re excited to be at UNC and all our efforts to make it a better place aren’t just for us. It’s not selfish, it’s to make UNC a better institution.”