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Heel Talk episode two: Graduate workers take COVID-19 demands to the University

Graphic of Heel Talk podcast

The second episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

On the episode, host Evely Forte talks to The Daily Tar Heel University staff writer Rachel Crumpler to discuss a list of demands that UNC graduate student workers would like University leaders to meet in response to COVID-19.

Entitled “Demands for the Immediate Relief of Graduate Workers at UNC-CH,” the statement outlines a variety of graduate student worker concerns, including a 75 percent cost of living adjustment and additional time and funding to complete degrees. The episode was produced by Allie Kelly.

For more information on today's episode, click here

The transcript of Monday's episode is available below: 

Rachel Crumpler: Graduate workers said that by the University meeting their demands now, it will not only provide relief in this moment of crisis, but will also improve the financial situation of all graduate workers that will come to UNC in the future. 

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte from The Daily Tar Heel and this is Heel Talk. 

Hello everyone, welcome to our second episode on Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte, and I’m here today with The Daily Tar Heel’s University Desk staff writer Rachel Crumpler. Say hi, Rachel, introduce yourself. 

RC:  Hi Evely and everyone else listening. I’m Rachel and I am a sophomore at UNC majoring in journalism. 

EF:  So today Rachel and I are going to be talking through a statement of demands that UNC graduate student workers wrote in response to COVID-19. 

The statement is called “Demands for the Immediate Relief of Graduate Workers at UNC-Chapel Hill.” Rachel, is this statement a sort of petition? 

RC: Yes, it sort of is. The petitioners don’t really consider it a petition, they think of it more as a letter or statement. But they are requesting that the University do something. So it is, you know, considered a petition. 

So the statement of demands was written by and for graduate workers and was sent to University leaders Monday morning. And in the letter, the petitioners request that the University provide immediate financial relief to students facing increased financial hardships during this time, due to the spread of the coronavirus. 

RC: So Ampson Hagan, a source I spoke to for the article, is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and he wrote the original draft of the letter in early April. And once he wrote the draft, the graduate students kind of got together and collaboratively edited and revised the letter. And in the revision process, the list of demands actually grew. Hagan said the letter was intentionally sent following graduate and professional student appreciation week. 

Ampson Hagan: We’ve all been collecting these emails about appreciation for graduate students and, you know, appreciation doesn’t pay anyone’s rent. Appreciation doesn’t, you know, make anyone feel safe in this particular time or actually be cared for. Appreciation comes in lieu of, you know, material, sort of, items that we need for life — but that’s inadequate and also kind of like a slap in the face. So we definitely wanted to take this time, while the University had graduate students at its mount, to speak to the idea that they’re not actually supporting us in the way that they are claiming to. 

EF: So Rachel, what types of graduate student workers are we even talking about? 

RC: So graduate student workers assist with teaching, research, or other academic work at UNC. So this includes serving as TAs, instructors of undergraduate courses, or research assistants. 

So graduate workers kind of have this interesting place at the University because they are considered both students and workers. 

EF: Do you have a sense of how many people have even signed on, in terms of support for this letter? 

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RC: Since I started reporting on this story the number of people that have signed the letter in support keeps growing. So far the letter has over 340 people. These are mostly graduate workers who the demands resonate with. But, alumni and professors have also signed in support of what’s stated. 

Danielle Dulken, a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Department of American Studies, who helped create the letter, said she was encouraged by the broad support the letter has received from the UNC community.

Danielle Dulken: I wasn’t sure how students would feel, like this is a really scary moment for a lot of people. And I think the fact that it has garnered so much attention speaks volumes about reality, the lived reality, of so many of our graduate student workers’ experiences right now, and the uncertainty we are all facing. So yeah, I’ve been really happy that got this letter out as a service to everyone to hold the University accountable.

EF: So, what exactly are these graduate student workers even demanding?

RC: The statement outlines 11 demands graduate workers would like University leaders to meet. These demands include a $2,000 emergency stipend to every graduate worker, continuation of health insurance coverage, and that University administration take a 10 percent pay cut with that money being distributed to worker relief. 

These are just a few demands that students have made related to the corona pandemic, but these concerns have also predated this crisis. 

Overall, they are trying to convey the increased financial burden that has been placed on graduate workers during this time. Overall, graduate workers are trying to convey in their statement the increased financial burden that has been placed on them. And one of their greatest demands is to increase their graduate worker stipend, which is currently $15,700 per academic year. 

EF: So is that minimum $15,700 stipend the only means of financial compensation that these graduate students receive from the University? 

RC: This is the main compensation they receive. But to make ends meet, many graduate student workers also take on other projects for professors, find part-time jobs, or kind of do other side hustles to make their way. 

EF: And what exactly is the problem that these students see with that specific stipend amount that they currently receive? 

RC: So, they don’t think that this amount is enough to be at a livable wage in Chapel Hill, or really anywhere else in the United States. So this is why they’re demanding their stipend be raised to a cost living adjustment stipend. So this would mean a 75 percent increase to bring the stipend to $26,790, which is the estimated living wage in Orange County. 

So, one source I talked to even said that the graduate stipend really hasn’t been changed in years. So they really think it really is time for it to be raised now. This is considered their most important demand and it predates the pandemic. 

EF: And I know that one of the demands, that these graduate students make, is asking for additional time and funding to complete their degrees. Did any of the graduate students you spoke to elaborate on why they are making this demand? 

RC:  So yes. Really for anyone, this change of setting and shift to virtual learning is not ideal, but several people I talked to mentioned barriers that are significantly impacting their ability to complete academic work.

One individual, Danielle Dulken, a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Department of American Studies, said she can’t access archives she needs to finish her dissertation.

Additionally, Sean Hernandez Adkins, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education, said that taking care of his toddler full time takes a lot of the day and slows his academic progress.

EF: Now the students are also demanding for the University to offer a minimum of $3,000 in summer funding solutions. Did any of the students mention the reasoning behind making that demand?

RC: Yes, so first it comes down to graduate workers are contracted on 9-month stipends. So securing summer positions is crucial for many to stay financially afloat. 

So, students rely on summer internships, grants, fellowships and jobs that have diminished a lot because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joseph Richards, a Ph.D. student and TA in the Department of Communication, said their job has since been canceled, making their financial issues even worse. So now during the summer, jobs he could have relied on in the past, such as working in restaurants or retail, are not really an option as places that are hiring. Overall, many graduate workers are facing the likelihood that they will have three months over the summer without any income and are very concerned by this.

EF: Were you able to get University comments on this petition and on these students’ demands?

RC: I emailed UNC Media Relations asking several questions, such as what was the University’s reaction to the letter and if, and how quickly the demands will be met. 

Media Relations responded saying that “The University values the work of our graduate students and will provide a response directly to the petitioners.”

EF: Just a final question here, why do these graduate students feel as if their demands should be met?

RC: From speaking to graduate workers, I’ve gotten the sense that they feel that they are valued primarily in name and would like the University to show their support through their actions by distribution financial resources to them. And also, graduate workers said that by the University meeting their demands now, it will not only provide relief in this moment of crisis but will also improve the financial situation of all graduate workers who will come to UNC in the future. 

Joseph Richards, a Ph.D. student and TA in the Department of Communication thinks how the University responds to this statement of demands will be a defining moment. 

Joseph Richards: We are asking that while we are here supporting the work of undergraduates, supporting the work of our faculty, doing our research, doing the things that we love, how invested is the University in us and our livelihoods. That’s something that’s gonna come out of this. We are going to learn that not by the emails, not by the press releases, not by the speeches that the University administration gives but by the actual specific material steps they take care to take of our financial needs.

EF: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because this student petitioning is not unique to graduate students. You know last month we wrote a story on the petition that was created by two undergraduate students to implement a pass/fail option for this semester’s classes. So, I think both the graduate student petition we talked about today — and the undergraduate one — are examples of grassroots movements initiated by students during such a historical moment in time that we are living through. 

So thank you so much, Rachel, for being here today.

RC: Of course! I was happy to. 

EF: And here are other University stories from this past week that you should be familiar with. First, UNC has decided to host New Student Orientation online this summer due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Jennifer Mallen, the director of New Student and Family Orientation said that planning is currently underway. But as of right now, the details as to how the orientation will work remain unclear. 

As the end of spring semester nears, the fate of fall study abroad programs are still uncertain. Director of Global Relations Katie Bowler Young said in an emailed statement from UNC Media Relations that it is still too early to say when the resumption of travel may occur. The UNC Study Abroad Office has created an FAQ site for students to stay up-to-date about the situation. 

Students and volunteers are using machinery at BeAM makerspaces to create and assemble face shields for employees at UNC Health hospitals due to the pandemic. Kalleen Kelley, a senior and an educational program specialist at BeAM, said that the students and volunteers have assembled about 11,000 shields so far and plan to make 10,000 masks for several weeks.

Researchers at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health collaborated with labs at Vanderbilt and Emory University to develop and test a new drug — called EIDD-2801— and it aims to treat COVID-19 patients. The drug has been tested on mice, and researchers hope to soon move to human clinical trials.  DTH reporter Isabella Sherk spoke with Timothy Sheahan, a virologist and assistant professor in the Gillings School, to learn more about the drug and its research.

And finally, UNC Campus Safety Commission members met April 15. Members approved recommendations made by the sexual violence subcommittee. They also discussed taking away officers’ lethal weapons in some situations — such as medical emergencies —  but the motion to approve that recommendation failed.

You can find links to each of these stories in the show notes below. That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. Stay safe, everyone!

Episode transcribed by Lauren Cook. 

DTH stories mentioned in this episode:

"New Student Orientation to be held online due to novel coronavirus pandemic," by Preston Fore

“Coronavirus extends uncertainty of study abroad programs into the fall semester,” by Anthony Howard

“Meet the students and volunteers making face shields to donate during COVID-19," by Claire Tynan

“UNC researchers collaborate on a potential pill to help treat COVID-19," by Isabella Sherk

“Here's a rundown of Wednesday's Zoom campus safety meeting,” by Sasha Schroeder

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