I know I echo a lot of international grad students when I say that the resources allocated to The Directorate of International Student and Scholar Advising (DISSA) and to helping us navigate the very confusing world of American visas, health insurance, work authorization, etc. are sorely lacking. One of the worst experiences I had concerned my stipend as soon as I arrived. I arrived in State College August 1st to begin my PhD because I was assured that would be enough time to complete my paperwork and attend mandatory international grad student orientation in order to be paid August 31st. Not what happened. I arrived, complied with every deadline and every requirement asked of me, and was still told that it would be impossible for my paperwork to be processed in time for payroll. This was for no other reason than they scheduled things incorrectly and just didn’t have “time” to get to it. DISSA blamed HR, HR blamed DISSA, and my poor department tried to sort it out on my behalf but couldn’t. That means I made an international move and didn’t see a single cent in income for 60 days. After paying first and last month’s rent, damage deposits, deposits on all utilities and my cellphone (since I have no US credit history!), it was a miracle I could afford to buy my books and feed myself for my first two months at Penn State. I felt completely abandoned and unwelcome by the administration and everyone I dealt with trying to explain my situation (except for my department) was utterly cold and uncaring. Not a great start to my life at Penn State.
Over the last 6 months I’ve walked through the majority of buildings on campus. Although I know I have not yet personally been to every building with grad students in it, I feel comfortable at this point saying that I have been to the majority of them. I’ve done this, of course, to talk to grad students and drop off flyers about unionization (if you haven’t checked your mailbox recently you should, there might be a present from me), but I’ve also learned a few things:
The scary signs that say something about radiation probably aren’t that accurate, unless they are. When I first encountered a sign on a lab door with a vague warning about radiation or chemicals I was at least slightly disconcerted at the prospect of entering (I think this was somewhere in Electrical Engineering). I was made even more nervous when a friend I was with, who comes from a physical science background, just walked right on it. With some prodding from him I learned that these signs are only vaguely important. And after months of knocking on doors I can only remember one time when the sign actually lead to a student asking me not to enter (although still taking flyers to handout).
There is a Learning Factory(?) on campus. I was under the impression that Penn State is one giant learning factory but I guess there is a specific one as well. (Connected to this is that I found out there are buildings on the other side of Atherton.)
The IST Building is the nicest on campus. Hands down. It has an Au Bon Pain. Spots to work. Touchscreen directories.
I am still not sure about which is the worst building on campus. For a while I thought that my own, Pond Lab, with its sealed shut windows and oddly spaced bathrooms would take this spot, but I am starting to appreciate it. To be polite I will not go into details but I will say, hey at least we have windows.
Staff assistants are the nicest people at Penn State. I’ve always suspected this, given the staff in my own department, but after walking in, rather confused, to many offices this has been reaffirmed and generalized. A lot of staff, answered a lot of questions about where grad mailboxes were, or offices (sometimes not even in their own department)
Most graduate students are willing to talk to the weird guy who just knocked on their office door. Setting out on this I had some trepidation about walking up and talking to other graduate students about anything, let alone unionization. We are not always known as the most gregarious group, and I feared that I wouldn’t get much beyond blank stares. Now, I won’t pretend as if I haven’t gotten any blank stares, but the majority of students were at least willing to actively listen if not talk to me.
Today, I drove myself to the Doctor’s office on the other side of a sleepy early morning State College. I patiently explained my condition to an albeit standoffish doctor as I recounted the past two months of appointments and medication. In July, after returning from fieldwork in Kenya for my dissertation (well, pre-dissertation), I had a mild ear infection that resulted in hearing loss. It’s at 40% in both ears now and I’ll be needing hearing aids in order to continue my mostly qualitative work (interviewing, listening, these are key to my research). After a painful procedure to test my left cochlear with steroids, I headed off to the office, a little woozier than I would have liked, to start a day of meetings and online teaching at my Graduate Assistantship.
Hearing aids aren’t covered by my graduate student insurance and cost more individually than I make in a month on my stipend from the university. Two years ago, when I first started at Penn State, I didn’t need hearing aids, and I don’t know if they would have been covered under the previous, better policy that we had (probably not, honestly, insurance doesn’t like to pay for hearing aids). But the fact is that without a union, as a student worker, there is literally nothing I can do to affect change about my health insurance, my stipend, my hours, the amount of time I need to take off to attend appointments, etc.
I have a great job, better even then my job last year. I TA, support faculty-led research, present at conferences, publish, all while working towards my own dissertation. I work with great and understanding faculty and staff who will give me a break when I need it. But I can’t live on the goodness of others alone, unfortunately. I’m vulnerable now, because I’m sick, and I need something that will protect me if I need to take more time off, if something gets worse. And I’m not alone.
I was pro-union before I got sick because I saw what happened to the health insurance plan that I came to this school with in 2013. I saw how the plan was swapped out by an administration that was unable (or unwilling) to negotiate for its most vulnerable staff. I saw my colleagues fight for our healthcare and make inroads. The policy we ended up with was better than the one originally handed down to us but it still means I pay the equivalent of half of my month's rent out of pocket every time I go to the doctor (in network or out, doesn’t matter). That negotiation happened because the administration had some ability to listen to our needs. Imagine what we could accomplish if we organized together! Working alongside the university, which already works with other unions to protect staff and faculty, we could ensure that no other graduate student workers will face the same insecurity that I’m facing now.
I’m not asking for handouts, I’m not asking for more money, or “perks,” I’m asking for the protection that all workers in this country have the right to ask for and to have. I am grateful to work for and produce scholarly works for the world-renowned research institution that is Penn State. I look forward to the day when I can say that this institution is great because it protects its workers, all of its workers, and that we all have a voice in our work and futures.