Mentoring while hungry: grad students face food insecurity
Brandeis graduate students elaborate on difficulty affording food, housing, and transportation.
Social justice begins at home, but sometimes it is hardest to see what is in our own backyard.
The food, housing, and transportation insecurity faced by many graduate students is mostly hidden from public view. The driving force behind these issues is financial instability, mainly caused by insufficient stipends and low Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow wages. The needs of graduate students are far more granular than classes and books. Graduate students are imperative to the operation of Brandeis University. They teach classes, advise students, conduct world class research, and are involved in an interdisciplinary system unique to Brandeis. Although each of the three graduate schools have different requirements, most graduate students are full-time students in addition to part-time workers for the University. The rigor and time commitment makes it difficult to work an additional off-campus job to supplement their income. According to Brandeis’ website, the school has over 700 Master’s, PhD and post-baccalaureate students in over 40 programs.
“We don’t want it to be onerous for students to be able to get what they need — though they may have to articulate something so we know to meet the need — the goal is not to make it bureaucratic or difficult,” Vice President of Student Affairs Andrea Dine said during an interview with the Justice on April 20.
The overarching issue seems to be that although graduate students are financially compensated, their income is not proportional to the cost of living in the greater Boston area, and therefore, they are not making enough to meet even their basic needs.
Brandeis is reliant on the work of graduate students, but the harsh reality for many students is that they are suffering physically, emotionally, and mentally because they can not get their daily needs met.
“We are adults,” Olivia Leland, a physics PhD student and Graduate Department Representative, said in an April 26 interview with the Justice. “We are adults that are making sacrifices for investment that our peers are engaging in, and my needs are not being met.”
In fall of 2022, the Brandeis Graduate Student Association sent a survey to the entire graduate student population to better understand students’ experiences with finding housing and the cost of rent. A copy of the survey report was provided to the Justice by a graduate student. 363 graduate students responded to the survey, nearly 52% of Brandeis’ graduate student body. 80% of the survey respondents shared their total income, with the median yearly income being $24,500. The majority of students said their main source of income was Brandeis stipends or other on campus employment. In a separate survey sent out by the Brandeis Office of Student Affairs on March 24, one respondent wrote that due to the cost of living in the Boston metro area being higher than the national average, the stipend package given to them would be just enough to cover basic essential expenses. According to the graduate schools’ website, stipends may range from $21,000 to $36,000 a year depending on the department. This figure does not account the amount paid in annual taxes. With this salary, many students are only able to afford the bare minimum.
In 2004, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed the Living Wage Calculator, a tool to help individuals understand and estimate the wage rate required to live anywhere in the country. The calculator projects that to live in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, a living wage for a full time working individual is $23.45 an hour or $48,776 a year. According to the calculator, $4,559 is estimated to be how much is needed for food and $20,920 for housing yearly. Given these estimates, it is understandable why graduates are dissatisfied with their fixed stipend. These stipends do not take into account inflation rates or the current cost of living.
The wages that TA and TF graduate students receive are currently set in the 2021-2024 contract established by the Graduate Student Union. Since the current wage doesn’t meet the current cost of living, there have been ongoing discussions.
“The union can support and empathize and fight, but we do not have that much bargaining power, unfortunately. This is because of the compromises that were made by the initial group of students who were fighting for unionization,” said Sanchita Dasgupta, a union representative and PhD student in sociology. “We have tried and failed every time. In fact, this is a huge problem for the admissions committee of different departments for the PhD programs, because we are not able to attract top talent because our pay is so low as compared to other schools in the Boston area and around the U.S.”
International students carry additional financial burdens. Valerie Bettaque, a PhD student studying mathematics, is an international student with an F1 Visa. Since Bettaque doesn’t have residency status, she is not eligible for tax deductions. Given that tax withholdings are higher for international students than domestic students, she faces an additional burden of food insecurity.
Food insecurity has grown exponentially as a problem since the pandemic according to Forbes. Since 40% of U.S. college students currently face food insecurity, the need to combat the issue is paramount.
For third year PhD candidate Ian Murphy, if he had to live on the income solely provided by the University, the location and cost of housing would be his biggest concern. He explained that he is fortunate enough to have a partner that brings in additional income. “If I had to live off of my own salary while paying Waltham rent, I don’t know what kind of situation I would be in,” Murphy said. Despite Murphy being in a dual income household, he still highlights the problems associated with the low compensation of graduate students, acknowledging that this would impact his food intake. Murphy continued that he would have to look more carefully at what groceries he could afford, and this limited budget could lead to eating cheaper and more processed foods, increasing the risk of malnutrition. Having to choose between their budget and the quality of their food is the reality for many graduate students.
The paralyzing feeling of receiving an unexpected bill that determines whether or not one will go hungry can cause great emotional, mental, and physical tolls.
Lewland explained that she was in the exact predicament that Murphy describes. During her first year of graduate school, she had an emergency that caused her to have a “complete nervous breakdown.” After the crisis she was left with nothing but $150 in her bank account and was forced to decide between feeding herself or her cat. Luckily, Leland had a friend that sent her money to help cover expenses for the following couple weeks.
“I honestly do not know what I would have done if my friend didn’t do that for me. I probably would have opted to feed my cat,” Leland said. “But the emergency happened mid-semester, when I was still teaching and in classes. I doubt I would have been able to perform either effectively if I skipped groceries for the week.”
This is the all-too-familiar reality for many graduate students at Brandeis and around the country. In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine at a university in the northeastern region of the U.S. with 263 graduate student participants concluded that the reality of food insecurity as it relates to mental health problems should be addressed head on: “Food insecurity occurred in nearly half of the graduate students surveyed, and very low food security was associated with elevated levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.”
Graduate students’ financial uneasiness is exacerbated by the high cost of living in the greater Boston area as compared to the national average. According to Payscale, the cost of living in Waltham is 44% higher than the national average and 50% higher for Boston. Individuals who face food insecurity often face additional financial challenges like housing and transportation issues. Since Brandeis does not offer graduate students on-campus housing, they are left to find alternative housing. Many students who are not in a dual income household or who do not have other financial support may have no other choice but to secure roommates in housing often far from campus.
In addition, Brandeis transportation services are limited to a specific area. Due to the high cost of living, many students live further away from the campus and may not be able to access the current free services and have to find alternative transportation. The cost of additional needed transportation can amount to a significant portion of the student’s income.
An anonymous survey responder to the Student Life Survey sent out by the Department of Student Affairs expressed their fears and frustrations at what they see as misplaced University priorities.
“I am one crisis away from crushing financial debt — a health scare or a car accident could put me into crushing debt,” the graduate student writes. “As a graduate worker and a TA, my labor is essential for Brandeis to run. It is morally wrong for the Trustees to budget millions of dollars to pay the salaries of administrators like Ron Liebowitz while graduate workers like myself are so financially precarious.”
Dine acknowledges her department is aware of graduate students’ concerns. She pointed to the Student Life Survey, developed in partnership with members of the Board of Trustees and other stakeholders, that reflected dining as a top issue for graduate students. Housing and transportation were ranked fifth and seventh respectively. Dine made a point to outline the existing food options. F.R.E.S.H, a food pantry program created by the Office of Graduate Affairs and partnered with Healthy Waltham provides students with non-perishable food resources and hygiene products. Additionally, there is a partnership with Warner Farms Vegetable Donation, where every week only 10 students can reserve 1-2 pounds of fresh produce. This year the University has collaborated with Swipe Out Hunger, a program that allows for undergraduate students to donate extra guest meal swipes, and graduate students can apply for those donated meal swipes. Students expressed hesitancy to apply, as the website stated applying for meal swipes could have an impact on financial aid. Assistant Vice President of Student Financial Services Sherri Avery has confirmed that last year her office determined students will not be required to report received meals, and it will not affect their financial aid per an April 27 email to the Justice. After the Justice contacted the department, the administration changed the website to reflect this policy. In acknowledging graduate student concerns, Dine explained that part of the plan for the Shapiro Campus Center enhancement project is to incorporate refrigeration and other food insecurity resources. Dine also stated that there is a plan to look at transportation routes in relation to existing food pantries and organizations like Healthy Waltham Food Distributions.
Despite University efforts, graduate students still face extreme financial hardships as outlined above, and the current solutions don’t adequately address the students’ needs. Good intentions alone have not solved the problems. Some have called these efforts on the part of the University “band-aid” solutions, while others question their effectiveness entirely.
Graduate students report that they are looking for healthy, affordable grab-and-go food on campus. This is not currently happening in a way that sufficiently meets their needs, evidenced by student survey responses. In an April 24 email to the Justice, a member of the Office of Graduate Affairs, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote: “The Office of Graduate Affairs is very concerned about food insecurity.” Many graduate students who rely on the food pantry have expressed the desire for more fresh and prepared foods that are more filling and nutritious. That member of the Office of Graduate Affairs acknowledges the problem and calls on the school to do more.
“We are what we eat, and the food pantry does not provide enough options for students to have a healthy meal,” the representative wrote in the April 24 email.
In what seems to some to be a piecemeal approach, rather than a holistic model, the University has also offered financial literacy resources for graduate students.
“You can’t budget your way out of poverty,” Leland said. “You can’t budget your way out of unperceived medical situations.”
Many graduate students shared their frustration with the fact that the University knows their financial situation, and rather than providing a living wage, their answer is financial literacy courses and food pantries.
Similarly, the Brandeis Office of Student Affairs, last month, published a website hoping to help all students find nearby housing. Dine elaborated that this may be more helpful for international graduate students who fall victim to housing scams. The administration hopes to adjust the website to make it more helpful for graduate students. If graduate students are not making a livable wage, as evidenced by the MIT calculator, a resource like this proves to be limiting.
Financial necessities fostering mental and physical health often come last, but Bettaque, who is in the process of transitioning, deems her hair removal treatment an absolute necessity. She expressed that the primary financial impact for her is that her transitional care is expensive. Her hair contributes to her gender dysphoria and with Brandeis’ health insurance, Bettaque has to pay out of pocket, meaning money is not there for other basic needs like food.
“Still, it has had a significant beneficial impact on my mental health, so I don’t regret it,” Bettaque said.
A 2022 study titled “Food insecurity and mental health among young adult college students in the United States” examined the health and wellness among undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. to better understand the association between food insecurity and mental health. The study concluded that “food insecurity was associated with greater prevalence of depression, anxiety, languishing, perceived need for help, loneliness, and self-injurious behaviors.”
“For a school that is pushing for social justice we are lacking in access to fresh, affordable foods and having a stable food pantry,” wrote the representative from the Office of Graduate Affairs.
As stated on the University website, “Brandeis was founded in 1948 … to embody its highest ethical and cultural values … The university that carries the name of the justice who stood for the rights of individuals must be distinguished by academic excellence, by truth pursued wherever it may lead and by awareness of the power and responsibilities that come with knowledge … and to recognize the need to analyze and address the ways in which social, cultural and economic inequalities affect power and privilege in the larger society and at Brandeis itself.”
“It’s very hard to provide quality education, teaching, and mentorship to undergrads, which I want to do, which I’m expected to do, but I can’t if I’m so stressed and don’t know when I’m going to eat,” Leland said.
In evaluating the stated concerns in relation to the resources it seems there are still many outstanding steps that need to be taken for a comprehensive approach to addressing financial, food, housing, and transportation insecurity for the Brandeis graduate student population. In interviewing graduate students for this story, each highlighted a need for the following actions: responsiveness from the administration when students express concerns, union contract negotiations prior to the end of the current contract, adjusted stipends to meet or exceed a living wage for the area — on campus graduate housing and funding for transportation to name a few. Consideration of a holistic approach to address the financial insecurity concerns is paramount as expressed by graduate students at Brandeis.
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