Everything is happening: A graduate student’s strike diary

Illustration of people protesting for COLA
Cameron Opartkiettikul/Staff

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I met UC President Janet Napolitano once. Well, “met” is a stretch. I was sitting at a conference when one of her aides asked if I would move seats so Napolitano could sit in my chair. I obliged and moved to an identical empty black chair six inches away. We didn’t speak, and I smiled a little wondering what was so special about the seat I had chosen.

I’m not sure about you, but the state of the world these days has me assessing where I put my energy. And just when it seemed as though things couldn’t get any more uncertain, there’s a virus spreading. It feels like a time for contemplation and community. A time to listen to the voice inside ourselves. Have you had enough time to do that lately? I’m a first-generation college student, a first-generation immigrant as well. These are some things the voice inside me says:

There aren’t enough vegetables on your plate. Are you drinking enough water? Make sure to call Grandma. How much does that cost? I wish Dad wasn’t working a second job. What’s my future after UC Berkeley?

I imagine you say some of these same things to yourself. We worked hard to get here; we work even harder to stay and thrive. So when news breaks of UC Santa Cruz graduate student instructors going on strike for better wages, getting arrested by campus police for civil disobedience and then getting terminated by the university well, it makes me stop and take a breath. Losing my job right now would be terrible. As a doctoral candidate, I’ve had the good luck of holding many fellowships. Although these awards bring in less income ($18,000 before taxes) than when I worked as a GSI (more than $19,000 in take-home pay for a GSI-1), the special thing about fellowships is that they give you time for yourself and your studies.

In contrast, when you’re a GSI, you find yourself trying to manage two different jobs. As rewarding as teaching is, there is something about it that takes a lot of energy out of you. When you turn to the task of writing your own papers, reading complex books and trying to form meaningful things to say, you find yourself kind of spent. At least I do. I also incurred an injury a few years ago that keeps me in pain. So, I get tired more quickly than I used to. I try not to worry about it because I discovered the workforce doesn’t really have the patience for slowness. And because I still have to support myself, no one else is going to take care of me.

No one else. Wait a minute. What was that feeling I had a minute ago? That the state of the world has me thinking about the need for contemplation and community. I see the word “community” in the weekly emails I get from UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. What about those fired graduate students? They must have had it coming, right? These are just consequences, consequences for people in our community who are apparently willing to put everything on the line to receive a cost of living adjustment. Do you pay us enough to live here? No, the UC system definitely does not pay its GSIs enough to meet the median cost of living, be that here or in Santa Cruz. It doesn’t even pay us enough to meet the “basic” costs of living in the Bay Area for the academic year, which the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office estimates to be more than $27,000. How am I supposed to cover a $6,000 gap when I’m already maxed out?

Is this what a community does? Bring in police who don’t know our campuses to arrest our students? Terminate GSIs rather than meet them at the bargaining table? Negotiate a deal with the union to get the best possible margin for the university, instead of offering a salary that meets graduate students’ basic expenses? If this is a community and place for advanced thinking, why wasn’t anyone in UC leadership thinking about the challenges faced by graduate students years ago? Why does the administration not prioritize its employees’ basic needs in the campus budget? (A 2017 report by the California State Auditor appears to offer some answers.)

There should be no tiers of treatment at an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of society. I invite the administration to search its conscience and reconsider its course of action. In the meantime, I urge all UC campuses to take time to rest, think and build community.