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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: UNC furloughs international graduate workers amid coronavirus pandemic

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill brands itself as, “the nation’s first public university, [and] a global higher education leader...” What we often forget is that brand identity is not the same as personal identity. UNC is furloughing its international employees. A “global leader” would have protected them.

I am an international graduate student-worker. Two of my best friends are having their contracts terminated because they cannot return to the U.S. 

UNC hires us to build its global reputation. And it commits to paying and protecting our income. With travel bans and border closures, departments made arrangements to honor their commitment to international employees. But UNC has chosen to override these protective measures. 

Twenty days before the start of the semester, UNC announced, “International students must be in the U.S. to be paid as graduate assistants.” My friends are on approved research leave abroad. After signing contracts and preparing to teach online classes, they are being furloughed. They had no warning.

No one is starting petitions or protesting on the streets because the rule doesn’t affect the masses. I’m writing to let you know that, in the middle of everything else, this is happening too.

We know little about why and how this unilateral decision was made. UNC has always employed international graduate workers abroad. It is especially confusing because the rule does not apply to American citizens who are overseas. 

My colleagues will face a number of consequences as a result of this sudden assault. They will have their SEVIS records and visas terminated. They will lose access to University resources, including email accounts and library access. They will have to find other jobs to pay for the life they put on hold in America: rent, utilities, car insurance, phone bills, etc. And, they will lose health insurance in the middle of a pandemic. 

Other things are uncertain. They may have to delay their graduation. In order to re-enter the US, they may have to go through the arduous and expensive process of reapplying for SEVIS records and new visas.

UNC has built a “global” brand by employing international students and international graduate-workers. We speak languages Americans can’t speak. We build relationships Americans can’t build. We see nuances Americans can’t see. And we support each other when our American sponsors don’t support us. 

We do these things under the banner of institutions that use our work to claim “global leadership.”

We persist with our work, making UNC a “global leader,” while facing daily institutional indignities. Our American colleagues, despite their own shortcomings, take the liberty to correct our grammar during seminars. Our American students ruthlessly criticize our teaching because they have never heard English spoken in a different accent before. Our American professors make snide, generalizing remarks about journals and research published in our home countries.

We quietly accept these indignities while American institutions use us to build their “global” brand.

We cope by focusing our attention on other Americans who make life livable. Our American friends who bring us marigolds when our grandmother dies. Our American friends who honor our festivals, Lunar New Year, Easter and Diwali, making sure we aren’t alone on those days. Our American advisers who recognize the ways that life across borders is harder, and carve out the extra time and space to nurture our aspirations. Our American friends who pack up our life when the borders close, wrapping up our sentimental belongings with theirs.

Let it be known that, in the middle of a global pandemic, UNC chose to terminate international graduate worker contracts instead of protecting and honoring them. An assault like this is not the mark of a “global leader.”

Smita Misra

Ph.D. Candidate & Teaching Fellow, UNC Department of Communication

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