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‘It’s nonstop’: Striking BU grad workers struggle to balance teaching, studying, life

In some ways, Boston University graduate students are typical college students. They don’t have much money. They’re trying to figure out what to do with their lives. And they tend to stay up late studying, and maybe ordering a pizza or two.

But the BU grad students, who have been since late March, are also university employees, which not only adds to their workload but complicates their relationship with the school. In addition to taking courses and writing dissertations, the students — some of whom are older and have children — are expected to teach classes, advise students, and conduct research. “To be everywhere all at once,” as PhD student Lauren Rains put it.

In all, Boston is home to roughly, according to 2022 city data. And as with any job, teaching and conducting research can be a relentless, thankless task. Yes, the BU grad workers are getting free tuition and eight-to-12-month stipends starting at $26,000 and $39,000, respectively, for what is supposed to be a 20-hour work week. But there are few guardrails in place. And eight months after they started bargaining for their first union contract as part of SEIU Local 509, pushing for higher wages and better benefits, they walked off the job.

Graduate workers around the country are “completely exploited,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a major higher-education union.

Faculty members have been known to take advantage of grad students, even making them run personal errands, said Cedric de Leon, a sociology and labor studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Picking up their dry cleaning — that’s what ends up happening,” he said, referring to an incident during his grad school days in Michigan.

And because students are so dependent on faculty members as advisers, pushing back can be detrimental. “By speaking up, you’re potentially putting your academic career and your livelihood in jeopardy,” he said.

Sara Ladino Cano, a fourth-year PhD student at BU from Colombia studying violence in Colombian literature, became so overwhelmed with her duties that she started seeing a therapist, even relying on him to help with her finances, which she “didn’t have time or mental stability” to do on her own. But she’s been unable to keep up with her studies, on top of teaching three 50-minute Spanish classes a week, and has decided to leave the program.

“It’s nonstop,” said Ladino Cano, 28.

In a statement, a BU spokesperson said the school would continue to address graduate students’ needs through collective bargaining. “We value our graduate students and their many contributions to teaching and research,” she said.

BU grad students, who have been on strike since late March, are also university employees, which not only adds to their workload but complicates their relationship with the school.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

BU is among a number of local institutions where tuition, housing, and other expenses will hit this fall.

Keeping up with the high cost of living in Boston is a major struggle for grad workers, who generally aren’t allowed to take outside jobs, although some quietly find other work or babysit for professors. BU has started withholding pay for striking grad workers, and students are working to arrange mutual aid donations and plan potlucks, and will have access to union strike funds. Credit cards may also get a workout, some said.

Even when they’re getting paid, the budget constraints of grad workers are significant.

Hannah Grace Howard, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology, tracks her expenses on an Excel spreadsheet, which reminds her every month that 60 percent of her $26,000 stipend is eaten up by rent. When grocery prices surged, she stopped buying meat — though she occasionally splurges on a $3.99 package of Trader Joe’s dried mangos. When her dog needed medicine for an ear infection, she stopped ordering coffee and eating out.

A $227 bill for an eye doctor appointment put her over the top. “I cried on the train on the way home,” said Howard, 29.

Taking yoga helps manage the stress of writing her dissertation — on charitable giving in the Greek Orthodox church in Athens — and working upwards of 30 hours a week as a teaching fellow. To avoid the $20 cost, she volunteers at the yoga studio before and after each class.

Rains, the history grad worker, grew up in a low-income single-parent household in Louisiana, and doesn’t get financial support from her family. To stretch her $28,000 stipend, she tried to apply for food stamps, but found out she doesn’t qualify, and took out a $4,000 loan, boosting her student debt to $30,000.

Rains, 23, studies German colonization in Africa, and spends 16 hours a week in class and 20 more writing and plowing through the 1,000 pages she’s assigned to read each week, some of it in German. As a teaching fellow for a twice-a-week 90-minute undergrad class on Nazis last semester, Rains taught two hour-long discussion sections a week on her own, creating the lesson plans, grading, and holding office hours for 45 students.

All of this for a post-graduation job market that is “practically nonexistent,” she said.

Over the years, grad workers have taken on classroom duties previously handled by faculty members, said de Leon of UMass Amherst. At the same time, he said, more money is being devoted to creating “country club environments” on campus rather than to the people who fulfill the university’s educational mission.

“The university, because it’s becoming more corporatized, has become ever increasingly reliant on cheap labor,” he said.

Cheyleann Del Valle Ponce de Leon has felt that acutely. The second-year PhD student in pharmacology is moving out of BU graduate housing in the Fenway due to a $3,600 annual rent increase on the horizon. Her stipend is only expected to go up a third of that amount.

Cheyleann Del Valle Ponce de Leon, a second-year PhD student in pharmacology, is moving out of BU graduate housing in the Fenway due to a $3,600 annual rent increase on the horizon. Her stipend is only expected to go up a third of that amount.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Del Valle Ponce de Leon, 27, who formerly worked as a nurse in Puerto Rico, has been pinching pennies to come up with a security deposit and first and last month’s rent. After finishing up a recent experiment at midnight in the lab, when the T had already stopped running, she decided to walk home instead of shelling out $35 or $40 for an Uber.

Doing anything fun outside of watching TV and crocheting on the couch revolves around a singular theme: “If it has the word free on it, I will do it, ” she said.

Like other researchers, Del Valle Ponce de Leon will continue doing lab work for her degree during the strike but plans to cut back on administrative tasks and seminars that aren’t part of her research on oral cancer.

Grad workers with children have even more on their plate. Currently, qualified families are eligible for a child-care stipend of $600 a year, which would pay for roughly a week of on-campus child care. For a parent in need of health insurance, upgrading to a family plan costs more than $1,100 extra a year, plus $4,400 for each dependent.

These costs make it much more difficult for parents to attend BU, said Eric Munson, a third-year computer science PhD student and a divorced father of three school-age children, who are on their mother’s insurance.

Munson, 43, earns $43,000 a year to conduct research full time, working up to 60 hours some weeks. Spending time with his kids, ages, 6, 9, and 13, “requires a fairly rigorous bit of scheduling,” he said — as well as resuming work late at night after they’re in bed.

His goal, he said with a laugh, is to get his degree before his 13-year-old daughter graduates from high school.

“I don’t want to be in college with my kid.”

Striking Boston University graduate student workers and supporters marched around BU’s Marsh Chapel on March 25