On Being an International Graduate Student Employee at SUNY Albany
Marcelo Marchesini, MBA is a Doctoral Student in Public Administration from Brazil.
Onur Bilginer is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Theory from Turkey.
For most of us – international students – it is a big opportunity to be doing our graduate studies in the United States. At SUNY we also have the privilege of being in the state of New York, with all the cultural, political, social and environmental attractions of this area. And just to complete the picture, as teaching and graduate assistants we don´t have to pay the full tuition and we are paid. So, we are supposed to be grateful, right? Right, but being grateful should not lead us to political apathy. That is, we must be active not only as academic and social beings but also as political subjects to guarantee for others the same benefits that we are currently enjoying.
American Universities and International Students: A History of Mutual Benefits
Among the factors which have granted the American universities with distinguished status, there is one that should concern us the most: the mutual benefits shared between the international students and the universities. This is important to clarify that University is not an institution governed by the principle of charity! We need to face the fact that our universities benefit from us as much as we benefit from them. SUNY Albany, like every other major university in United States, invites a lot of international students from different backgrounds aiming to achieve excellence through diversity. As a result, the network of the faculty and staff improves, the richness of the academic debate and research are improved, and as new partnerships are cultivated, old and new resources are brought together for the sake of the production of knowledge. On the other hand, the international students who benefit from their studies and scholarship have access to the structure of the university and establish relationships with the American intellectual elite. And this is important, among other reasons, to the prevalence of the American hegemony. Besides that, of course, we are a very cheap working force. Thus, it is a system that provides benefits from both the American universities and for us, international graduate students. Nevertheless, this highly acclaimed “identity of interest” does not completely picture the reality we as international graduate student employees have to face on a daily basis.
A System Under Attack
We’re sure you already knew that. Something you may not know is that the SUNY system has been damaged by budget reductions spanning thirty years and the neoliberal politics of austerity are transforming the landscape of our universities. Did you know, for instance, that SUNY´s budget was reduced by over 35% in the last 7 years? These numbers tell a story of shifting priorities, shown in the deactivation of five majors and effectively their departments at SUNY Albany—French, Russian, Italian, Classics, and Theater—the hiring of low-paid adjunct faculty on campus who now outnumber full-time professors in American Universities by 125% and last, but not least, our increasing workload as Graduate and Teaching Assistants. What will be left when public universities extinguish all that does not immediately produce profit? Our stipends at SUNY Albany are currently not enough to live comfortably. By comfortable, we simply mean enough to meet our needs. We must choose very carefully where to live, what to eat and how to spend money in general to finish each month. These seemingly individual problems immediately gain moral and political significance when we begin to compare ourselves with the graduate students from other departments, some of which have more extensive course offerings, a wider faculty and higher stipends. If we were isolated beings, these differences would not be a problem at all. But the fact is that we are social beings. Whether we like it or not, we live in the presence of others. We interact with each other and exchange our opinions as well as our experiences. In doing so, we cannot but question our moral and political relation to the people surrounding us. Do you still think it is bizarre for us to ask whether it is just for a colleague in Public Administration to be paid more than a student of Philosophy for doing roughly the same amount of work?
Let us be clear, our moral and political concerns about academic life are not just about money. They are also about priorities. Would you rather see a beautiful fountain on campus or have a quality library? Or would you rather have funds to participate in conferences? Or would you rather have a better scholarship? The fact remains that no one asked you these questions and decisions are being made in the same old top-down model.
Finally, we must address our own special conditions as international students. How easy it is to rent an apartment if you don´t have a credit history, personal references or deposit money? That’s not much, right? And could SUNY help us with this? Of course, they could. We are studying and working for them, so they should provide us with at least a statement or even better: they could be guarantors to the landlords. New York University (NYU), for instance, already does this.
And What Can We Do?
The Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) is the legitimate organization to look out for the interests of SUNY Albany’s Teaching and Graduate Assistants. The union is run by graduate students who are willing to work with us in order to achieve: better conditions of study and work, a decent stipend and good health insurance. But we have to participate. Every Teaching and Graduate Assistant pays a portion of their check in dues to the union. You can and should participate in the decisions made by the union on our campus and statewide. We must be organized to negotiate a better contract with the state of New York and to seek better working conditions within SUNY.