CCAS doctoral students petition for additional support amid COVID-19

Doctoral students are petitioning for changes to graduate student funding packages as the COVID-19 pandemic increases their workloads and reduces work opportunities.

The students’ letter to Columbian College of Arts and Sciences officials, which has accumulated more than 180 signatures from professors and graduate students as of Sunday, pushes for changes like supplemental funding for the summer term and a refund for the student health insurance plan. Students involved in drafting the letter said these changes would compensate for the pandemic’s adverse effects on research and networking opportunities.

The students are requesting that officials provide three types of support – an extension of graduate assistants’ monthly stipend rates for the summer, a semester for doctoral students where they are exempt from teaching and reimbursement for the unused portion of this year’s cost of University health insurance.

Alyssa Bivins, a second-year doctoral student studying history, said these changes would provide financial support for doctoral students who have lost time and work opportunities while reducing additional out-of-pocket health care costs.

“The sooner we know where we stand and what opportunities we will have or what we can build upon, the better,” Bivins said. “It’s about each of us individually in our careers, but it’s also about giving GW doctoral students a chance to succeed and thrive.”

Sarah Wagner, an associate professor of anthropology, raised the letter at the April Faculty Senate meeting Friday. Provost Brian Blake said he had received the letter and has formed a committee to discuss the students’ requests.

“I do think we need to support our graduate students in similar ways which we’ve supported the community in general, through this through the pandemic,” Blake said.

Bivins, the doctoral student, said the letter – which is addressed to Blake, CCAS interim Dean Paul Wahlbeck and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Chad Heap – aims to present a set of requests that would benefit almost all doctoral students. The exempted semester proposal, for example, would allow graduate students to pursue more research opportunities in the future to compensate for canceled fieldwork this summer, she said.

Bivins said she has also been trying to restore “a degree of normalcy” for the 48 students she teaches by creating online activities – time that would otherwise be spent on research and writing.

“If we have an additional one exempted, it could potentially mitigate both the lost time that we’ve had for this semester but also the loss that we’re going to experience this summer,” Bivins said.

Robert Hildebrandt, a third-year doctoral student studying anthropology, said doctoral students often seek research posts or part-time jobs during the summer to secure summer funding. He said the request asking for the continuation of doctoral students’ monthly stipends, which differ by student, would help alleviate the burden to students whose summer programs have been canceled.

“Knowing that a lot of the resources that we would normally depend on are suddenly not going to be available and given that the University has already done things to make sure that faculty are taken care of certain ways, we wanted to make sure that they were hearing our needs for some sort of supplemental assistance as well,” he said.

Michael Kaplan, a second-year doctoral student studying anthropology, said the pandemic’s effect on some doctoral students, like those who are parents, is more intense because the change to online classes creates compounding responsibilities for them.

“Not everybody is able to be as efficient at home and be as productive at home,” he said. “And so I think giving a semester where they don’t have those responsibilities will allow them to catch up on their own research as well.”

Kaplan said the petition is intended to aid the advocacy efforts of CCAS faculty on behalf of students and put doctoral students on the radar as the University reckons with the pandemic’s effects.

“I do feel like the longer there’s uncertainty, the more anxiety there is among students,” Kaplan said. “We just hope that there can be some clarity sooner than later.”

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