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January 27, 2015

Graduate student rights group to petition University

More than 40 representatives of Graduate Students United (GSU) convened at University Church on Monday night to voice concerns regarding the University’s policies for graduate students, including the structure of the Student Life Fee (SLF), University policy for international students, and child-care stipends for student-parents.

According to Madeleine Elfenbein, a GSU member and sixth-year graduate student in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, the organization was founded in 2007 in the aftermath of an expansion in University aid for graduate students that did not include current graduate students.

“The Graduate Aid Initiative punished people who were suckers enough to take the deal [of enrolling] before it got really sweet, and left them out in the cold. So, we formed a union the next year, and succeeded in doubling TA salaries,” Elfenbein said.

However, Elfenbein contends that since 2008, the University has attempted to erode GSU victories by increasing the SLF at an unreasonable rate and by not providing adequate disclosures of the money’s allocation. The SLF, according the Office of the Bursar’s website, “provides funding for health and wellness, student activities and centralized campus services.” The SLF is currently assessed at $347 per quarter for graduate students and $371 per quarter for undergraduates.

Eric Powell, a GSU member and third-year English literature graduate student, said the SLF for graduate students has increased by  87.5 percent increase from academic year 2004–2005 to the present. He added that the SLF does not cover services that are standard at peer institutions, such as bus passes.

In addition to discussing the SLF at the meeting, the organization also focused on the concerns of international students—in particular, the University’s policy of not refunding the federally mandated $200 annual Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVIS) program fee.

GSU member Sarath Pillai, a second-year history graduate student, said that the University does not offer sufficient support for international students and should assist them in purchasing necessary supplies for living in Chicago (like winter coats) as Oxford and Cambridge do.

Members also discussed supporting student-parents. Claire Roosien, a third-year graduate student in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, said that she believes that the University’s system of child-care stipends should be reformed.

“[Student-parents] who are making 20 [$20,000] per year are receiving the same child-care stipend as those who make 65 [$65,000]. Stipends should be tied to income and number of kids,” Roosien said.

For Elfenbein, the result of a steadily increasing SLF, along with other rising fees and unaddressed graduate student concerns, is reduced diversity among the graduate student body.

“We have to ask whether we want to include students who, perhaps, had some kids along the way, or have a disability, or don’t have a trust fund. If we want to have that kind of community, we have to claim it,” Elfenbein said.

The GSU will hold a rally on the main quad at 2 p.m. on Friday. Elfenbein said that the GSU does not yet have an explicitly defined agenda for petitioning to the University, but that it is forthcoming.

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