SUNY leaders (photo: @SUNY)
When I accepted my position to teach in the Anthropology department, I didn’t expect to be worrying about having enough to eat every day.
Yet that is the unfortunate reality many graduate student workers in the State University of New York (SUNY) system face, where the combination of exorbitant fees and a meager stipend for our labor push us to the brink of poverty.
At SUNY Binghamton, where I work as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I shell out approximately $2,000 a year in fees, which is nearly 13% of my stipend.
These fees are purportedly for items like technology services and software programs that we need to use and access to do our jobs. There is no reason that we should be footing the bill for these expenses. Our employer is shifting the standard costs of the job to its employees. This has become even more outrageous during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we cannot even use many of the services we are being charged for.
We should not be asked to maintain operations at our schools when we have been hired to teach and provide high-quality instruction to students. It makes remaining in our programs nearly impossible, and takes away from our work. That is why I support a current State Senate budget proposal that would phase out mandatory school fees for graduate workers like me.
$2,000 might not seem a lot to some, but it essentially amounts to a 13% pay reduction. As a result, I have been forced to take out loans and live in an apartment without heat to save money for other essentials, like food. Many of my fellow grad workers rely on the food pantry on campus because we simply do not have enough cash to buy groceries.
All of this can take a significant mental toll on graduate student workers. We cannot focus on our work if we are struggling to meet our basic needs like paying for food and rent. We are here to teach and learn but instead our energy is often focused on simply surviving.
There is something fundamentally wrong with this dynamic. Graduate student workers should be treated with respect and dignity. And that means not paying to work. It’s time for the Legislature and the Governor to act and protect the integrity of our university system and the graduate workers who sacrifice so much for our state universities.
Ana Sanchez-Bachman is a PhD Graduate Worker at SUNY Binghamton.