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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Administration

Graduate students want more University protections


With the Graduate Student Bill of Rights, students aim to ensure more transparency and communication with the University in regard to scholarships, stipends and healthcare. | Corbin Ayres/The Cougar

After an incident at a financial stability panel last year sparked frustrations within the graduate student community, the Graduate and Professional Student Association took matters into their own hands.

Modeled after the U.S. Bill of Rights, graduate students at UH have created their own Graduate Student Bill of Rights in a push for better treatment and more communication from faculty and the University.

“They told a student getting paid $400 a month with a family of four to budget better,” said GPSA Treasurer Jesus Cruz-Garza, who was president of the organization at the time.

GPSA President Sydnee Spruiell Eldridge said this was the event that sparked the students into action. 

“It seemed a little tone-deaf,” Eldridge said.

The Graduate Student Bill of Rights is designed to aid in situations when students feel they are subject to unreasonable treatment. If passed, it will lay out expectations students have of the University so they and faculty know how to proceed when problems arise.

This is done through the nine rights granted to all graduate students in the document. It addresses transparency about student scholarships, as well as ways to solve issues students have with health insurance stipulations. 

“(It) will give graduate students something to lean back on if they feel they are being mistreated,” said Eldridge when she pitched the bill to SGA Jan. 23.

Request for clear communication 

Every year, international students flock to UH with hopes of getting a Tier One education. These students pack their bags and leave their loved ones to live in Houston.

One of GPSA’s goals with the proposed bill is to increase overall transparency and awareness to international students in an effort to give them some peace of mind during their time at UH.

“Coming from a different country, I don’t know what type of rights we actually have,” said Cruz-Garza, a Mexico native.

He said that uncertainty leads many international students to believe it’s the norm when they see their U.S.-born peers also receiving poor pay and being overworked.

On top of that, most international students have to face uncertainty with their scholarships, which are only guaranteed for three years, said education, curriculum and instruction international graduate student Glenda Wui. International students come here on the notion that UH will pay for the first three years of their education, then if funding allows, they are granted money to finish their degree.

“It’s terrifying to know that,” Wui said. “We are on our toes to make sure we make it to the fourth year.”

The Graduate Student Bill of Rights proposes immediate communication from the staff to the student in an event where funding isn’t likely for the entire duration of their degree in the bill’s ninth granted right. 

Through this, faculty has to communicate with their students about the likelihood of whether or not they will be able to continue to support the student to the end of that fourth year, Eldridge said.

Insurance

One other obstacle that graduate students are hoping to overcome with the Graduate Student Bill of Rights is the difficulties they face with medical insurance.

Of the $16,000 a year that the majority of graduate students make, $2,500 is owed to medical insurance in a mandatory fee from UH, Cruz-Garza said.

“It is a big chunk of the salary, and it really impacts the quality of life here in Houston,” Cruz-Garza said.

He went on to explain that some students are having to move every few months because they can’t afford to pay rent, insurance and for food with just a small stipend.

While the document won’t have the power to lower insurance rates or raise the students’ stipends, Eldridge said it will give students a say in the discussions about these issues and call for reasonable wages.

“The right to access affordable and comprehensive health insurance and housing options” is the fourth right in the Graduate Student Bill of Rights.

In addition, the ninth right listed above would give the graduate students the chance to be in future discussions about possibly changing the medical insurance plan to be more affordable for all students.

Dean of the Graduate School Sarah Larsen acknowledged the problems graduate students face with insurance and said she and UH are working on improving the issues involving health insurance.

“There is a lot of support for it,” Larsen said. “I wasn’t here for a week before I heard about how problematic health insurance is for the students.”

What’s next?

At this point, there are only a few steps left before the Graduate Student Bill of Rights is official.

SGA President Cameron Barrett explained how SGA and GPSA  have had to collaborate to make the document possible.

“Early on, (Eldridge) came to me in order to unionize the governing groups on campus to tackle the issue together,” Barrett said. “We realized we couldn’t unionize, but we wanted to make some sort of bill of rights. So I set up the meetings between her and Provost.”  

From this meeting, Eldridge then went to Larsen to form an ad hoc committee about the Graduate Student Bill of Rights. This means that Larsen, Eldridge, Barrett and assorted faculty all came together to initially lay out what the document would entail.

After this, Eldridge and Barrett presented the idea to SGA in a quick brief Jan. 23. SGA is voting on whether or not to pass the document in the meeting Wednesday.

On Jan. 31, GPSA held a roundtable on the subject. All graduate students were invited to attend and voice their concerns about both the program and the Graduate Student Bill of Rights. Larsen was in attendance as well as all of the GPSA staff members advocating for the bill.

Once this goes through, GPSA will submit the bill once again to Larsen as well as the UH Provost Paula Short. If they approve it, the bill will then move to the last two steps.

First, the bill will go to legal counsel. This is where UH lawyers look at the document and see if it can be legally be approved. Then finally, it will be taken to the Graduate and Professional Studies Council for faculty approval, Eldridge said in her roundtable brief to the graduate students.

If not, the bill will continue to get revised until both faculty and student representatives in GPSA agree on the final product.

“My hope is that the final document will provide a general framework of principles that will guide future policies focused on graduate student success,” Larsen said.

While the bill still has a long way to go, students like Eldridge and Cruz-Garza are motivated enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think now is a really good time for students to speak up about this,” Eldridge said. “We need to strike while the iron is hot and tell them right now this is a problem.”

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