No Apples for the Teachers

In this news commentary, a UA grad assistant discusses how she and her peers work long hours for low pay and no guarantees.

Dalyn Luedtke is the proud mother of a 7-year-old daughter, Aspen. Like many mothers, she's made sacrifices to ensure that both she and Aspen have a secure future.

She's a single mom, and because she works to support herself and her daughter, she doesn't get to see Aspen as much as she'd like. Of course, there's also the matter of distance--Aspen lives in San Diego, while Dalyn lives here in Tucson.

"My decision to come to Tucson for graduate school was, quite possibly, the most difficult decision I've ever made," Dalyn said. "I left my entire family in California to take advantage of this opportunity, including my daughter."

Dalyn's choice to attend the University of Arizona's graduate program in Rhetoric, Composition and the Teaching of English is one she hopes will allow her to provide Aspen with greater opportunities someday. In the meantime, she visits her daughter when she can.

"I just hope I don't miss too much," she said.

Dalyn's choice is one that most of us would hope we'd never have to make--to leave a loved one behind while we work toward an uncertain future. Yet every day, graduate teaching and research assistants at the UA are asked to make similarly difficult choices. The lack of child care at the university, a crippling workload and rising tuition costs, coupled with one of the lowest tuition remission numbers of our peer institutions, make many re-think their decision to attend the UA.

Kristen (not her real name) was prepared to accept the financial sacrifices she'd have to make in order to attend the UA. She and her husband made their combined salaries stretch, and she tried not to think about the benefits Kristen was missing out on by teaching at the UA instead of taking a job elsewhere. The couple and their 9-year-old daughter, Alice, were doing OK--for a while.

"Jake was a surprise I hadn't counted on," Kristen noted wryly. Now, with a 4 1/2-month old son in day care full-time, Kristen's teaching salary is effectively slashed in half.

"I feel that getting my education is worth it despite the high cost, but still, about $8,000 of my paycheck this year has gone to pay for (daycare)."

Kristen is an effective, enthusiastic teacher, but workload issues and the lack of child care have taken their toll: She is taking the next few years off to stay with the children at home.

Teaching assistants only teach for eight months out of the year, and most have to try to find temporary work during the summer to supplement their pay, or they rely on their partners to float them for the four months they are effectively unemployed.

When I first moved to Tucson in June three years ago, I tried to find a job as a temp or a waitress. I have a master's degree and years of experience working in offices and as a server. But as hard as I tried, I couldn't find a job until August. By then, my meager savings had run out. I was beginning to panic. I'm in a better situation now, but many of my peers still are not.

For instance, now that I'm married, my husband's health insurance plan covers vision and dental as well as ordinary health issues; if I got sick, I'd be covered. The standard health insurance plan offered to graduate assistants does not include vision or dental, and the health benefits themselves are low. Assistants essentially must take a gamble and hope they don't get sick.

Leigh Jones recounts how a lower back injury led her to take out student loans--not to pay for school, but to pay medical bills. "I needed off-campus, specialized physical therapy. At first, I took out loans to be able to afford regular visits to the physical therapist. But after a while, it was just too expensive, even with student loans, because of tuition."

Since graduate assistants are also students themselves, the rising tuition costs affects them just as much as it does undergraduates--and perhaps more, since most undergraduates at the UA are traditional-age and single, while graduate students are often older, married or partnered, and with children.

This means that every time tuition rises at the university, graduate assistants' salaries drop. Currently, there are teaching remissions--"refunds" for overpayment, in a sense--in place for graduate teaching and research assistants. In 2001, the remission was 25 percent, and in 2002, remission rose to 50 percent. But because tuition had been raised in the meantime, the remission amount effectively remained the same. Currently, the UA is ranked third-to-last relative to its 15 institutional peers in terms of tuition costs and remission. Twelve of those 15 offer graduate assistants 100 percent tuition remission (or fee waivers). Those students get to keep their entire paycheck, while here at UA, there's some interesting "numerical magic" being performed.

Admittedly, no one's forcing graduate students to seek an advanced degree. All of the assistants involved are at the UA of their own free will. Many, like Kristen, may decide to take time off or even quit. But those who stay are suffering now through exhausting working conditions in the hopes that someday, things will be better.

The irony is that many of the graduate teaching assistants who graduate and go on to receive a tenure-track position elsewhere will be helping to perpetuate the system themselves. The system could not function without the graduate assistants, who perform a significant percentage of the research and teaching activities of the university. Since the system can't change, something else has to.

Administrators need to remember that their decisions affect not just numbers, but people. Focused Excellence and the like have the potential to undermine the teaching and research it is attempting to save. If the UA wants to "(offer) a stimulating learning environment that inspires all students, faculty, and staff to do the best work they can do," then they can begin by offering humane working conditions to all employees of the university, including graduate assistants. Only then will we be able to offer "(teaching) of unusually high quality and effectiveness," continuing the educational excellence of the University of Arizona.

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