Most days, I can cope with the fact that I am only one or two minor disasters away from living in poverty. It would take only one emergency and a couple of expensive bills for me to face hunger or to miss a rent payment. Many other graduate workers are in a similar situation, and it is a stressful experience. Imagine worrying that something as simple as an unexpected cavity or minor kitchen injury could lead to financial instability. As researchers, employees, and students, we devote most of our time to the University of Iowa. Both our academic work and our employment at the university are part of our careers. Sadly, it sometimes feels like a thankless relationship. While we pour our time and energy into research and teaching, the university gouges its supposedly valued employees with “mandatory fees.” I truly appreciate the support that UI already provides me, but there are certain aspects of our employment that need to change.
The University of Iowa leaves me in a precarious living situation at the end of each summer. Before I even receive my first paycheck for the school year, I am required to pay half of my mandatory fees ($275) by the end of August. This payment, of course, comes directly after I have drained my savings on the cost of living and research travel. Unfortunately, this summer I also faced two minor disasters; my car broke down twice. After paying for repairs, at the beginning of August 2019, I had $7 left in savings and was charging most of my regular costs to my credit card. I was stressed enough racking up credit card debt without also having the U-Bill looming over my head. For this school year, I had to take out student loans to cover my fees. I could not charge the fees (plus a late fee) to my first paycheck because that would leave me unable to pay my medical bills or buy groceries in September. I was also not in a position to call family members and seek financial assistance. Why should I, as a young independent adult with steady employment, need to even consider begging my family members for money? Why should I, as an employee of the university, need to pay nearly $300 per semester just to work? First year graduate students pay even more ($485) their first semester to cover a record and documents fee. In my case, the nearly $500 charge came after I moved halfway across the country and drained the small amount of savings I had from working three part-time jobs.
This year, UE Local 896/COGS is campaigning for the University of Iowa to cover all fees for graduate student workers. I stand behind this movement. My personal story is not too unlike many of the others graduate workers might tell. I am an unmarried 23-year-old who has been financially independent since the age of 18. With half of my monthly income going to the outrageous rent costs in Iowa City, and chunks of the other half being distributed to various bills, I am left with little money to save or deal with emergencies. The addition of mandatory fees to my usual cost of living only adds to my worry and fear. I love being a graduate student, but if the Board of Regents and the University of Iowa would agree to cover all fees, I think there would be a significant boost in employee morale. And students like myself would not have to worry as much about being one bill away from disaster.
Faith Wilfong is a zooarchaeology graduate student in the UI Department of Anthropology.