Letter to the Editor | Grad student: How can I produce my best work if I can hardly afford to eat?


Pitt’s food pantry helped graduate student Andréa Hanna get by on a salary below living wage. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Staff Photographer)

Dear Editor,

I read the message from the provost, Patricia Beeson, about the graduate student union yesterday with some interest and reservations. My first concern, and I quote the provost’s message here, is when she says, it is “the education, not the financial support, is the goal of graduate study.”

It is indeed true that graduate students are not pursuing a lengthy and challenging graduate degree in the hopes of being paid well for the years they are pursuing it. However, the issue for many graduate students is that our teaching stipends are below the living wage for single adults. I refer you to the living wage calculator for Allegheny County.

Here you can see that the annual income required for a single adult, before tax, is $20,606. On average, and certainly as a humanities graduate student, we receive thousands less than this.

I know the University might suggest we pursue federal loans or use credit cards. However, I would like to offer myself as the model for a “bottom-line” student the University should seek to support during their studies. I offer myself as the model because I am an international student from the UK.

I come from a poor working class family who cannot support me financially. I used my savings in the move I made to the U.S. after living in China for three years. I never had a credit card in the UK because I graduated during the recession and UK banks were reluctant to issue credit cards to first time users. In the U.S. it is nigh on impossible for international students to procure a credit card beyond a secure card. Moreover, we obviously cannot apply for federal loans, and to pursue private loans, requires an American citizen to act as co-signer (I can’t imagine another American student would want to sign up to take responsibility for a foreigner’s private debt). Taking a private loan is rather reckless given the extortionate interest rates attached.

I have struggled massively this past year to literally eat. If it weren’t for the Pitt Pantry I would genuinely have starved. I talked with PublicSource last year, describing how this helped me get by.

I have had to sell clothes and furniture to ensure I can cover food and utility costs. I have to borrow a laptop from student services throughout the academic year because after my Macbook broke I couldn’t afford the cost of a new one from my stipend or from my lack of credit card.

Moreover, I am limited in my ability to travel to conferences, which is literally expected of me as a graduate student. We have to cover the costs of attendance, travel, accommodation and food in advance of any reimbursement guarantees we might have procured. This certainly limits the education I receive — which the provost claims is the primary goal of my studies. Furthermore, when I am worried about what I can afford to eat how am I going to produce my best work?

I would be more than happy to meet with the Provost to discuss this in further detail to stress that the University needs to seriously consider raising the minimum stipends for teaching to match the basic living wage.

Yours sincerely,

Andréa Hanna