FAU’s College of Arts and Letters graduate teaching assistants among the lowest paid in Florida

Arts & Letters graduate teaching assistants at FAU are paid the lowest stipend in the state, and they want their healthcare covered. But all they have from FAU is a promise, and a Fall 2020 deadline.

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FAU’s College of Arts and Letters graduate teaching assistants among the lowest paid in Florida

Kelsey Moghadaspour, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. If she received healthcare from FAU as a GTA, she wouldn't have to fly to Seattle for treatment. Photo by Simone Stewart

Kelsey Moghadaspour, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. If she received healthcare from FAU as a GTA, she wouldn't have to fly to Seattle for treatment. Photo by Simone Stewart

Kelsey Moghadaspour, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. If she received healthcare from FAU as a GTA, she wouldn't have to fly to Seattle for treatment. Photo by Simone Stewart

Kelsey Moghadaspour, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. If she received healthcare from FAU as a GTA, she wouldn't have to fly to Seattle for treatment. Photo by Simone Stewart

Cameren Boatner, Editor in Chief

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Correction: This print version of this story states that Associate Dean Adam Bradford said it would take $50,000 to raise graduate teaching assistant stipends. The correct figure is $211,000.

Kelsey Moghadaspour, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 10 months old. That means her lungs work at about 44 percent efficiency compared with healthy lungs.

Her condition requires frequent hospitalization and treatment, something made difficult by the fact she doesn’t have health insurance in Florida, and FAU pays her a couple grand below the Florida poverty level.

Moghadaspour, 22 has a health insurance plan through Medicaid in Seattle, Washington, but that means she has to fly home and stay for treatment about six weeks each semester. But every time she gets on a flight, she runs the risk of not walking off on her own — being around so many germs can cause problems for her lungs. 

If FAU provided subsidized health insurance for GTAs, she says her life would be a lot less dangerous, and it would allow her to do a better job — and FAU promised she, and all other GTAs, would in Fall 2020.

“I can’t sacrifice lung function. And the fact that we’re struggling so hard to fight for health insurance when I’m not even the only one with medical issues in our program, is disheartening because it makes you feel like you’re not valued. You have to fight so much just to be able to not die while teaching,” Moghadaspour said.

Moghadaspour and other GTAs teach classes you’re required to take your first year like ENC 1101 and ENC 1102. FAU pays GTAs in Arts & Letters a minimum stipend of $8,000 a year, the lowest in the state, and they don’t get subsidized health insurance, unlike all other research institutions in the State University System who employ GTAs. FAU hasn’t increased stipends for Arts and Letters GTAs in over two decades — and doing so would cost $211,000 a year, something the college can’t afford, according to Associate Dean Adam Bradford.

Aiden Baker, who gets more money from a fellowship program, says that even though she makes more than her peers, it still isn’t easy to live off of $15,000. Moghadaspour lives with her dad in Fort Lauderdale and doesn’t pay rent, but still can’t live on $9,000 a year.

Aiden Baker, a graduate teaching assistant. Photo by Alex Liscio

“You’re not [supposed] to be paid by a side job, so it’s all hush hush, but they don’t pay us enough to live, so it’s non negotiable,” Moghadaspour said. “They just turn a blind eye because they know we have to live somehow.”

FAU is trying to alleviate the financial pressure on GTAs by creating a subsidized health insurance program for $1.8 million, covering 75 percent of the costs, according to Bradford.

“We worked hard to try to address this and I’m really glad to see that institutionally, it seems like things have lined up now to make healthcare happen,” Bradford said.

Graduate Dean Robert Stackman said the actual cost for healthcare would be more than the $1.8 million, but regardless, they would make cuts in the budget elsewhere to compensate for the cost.

Graduate College Dean Robert Stackman. Photo by Alex Liscio

Provost Bret Danilowicz said the funding for healthcare may come from cuts in faculty and graduate assistant salaries, but everyone is interested in keeping their money — posing a problem for the university.

“If I make a decision, no matter how I create that, it won’t be received positively,” Danilowicz said. “I don’t think I’ve heard of a higher priority since I’ve been here. The problem is getting everyone to band together and come up with the money. That’s what we’re trying to figure out this semester.”

Still, he expects the program to function in Fall 2020. While this is a huge step for many GTAs, there still aren’t any concrete plans to increase the stipend.

Stagnant stipends

Unlike subsidized healthcare, the funds for stipends would have to come from the colleges themselves. In the case of Arts and Letters, the college couldn’t afford the roughly $211,000 it would take to raise the stipends, Bradford said. He said Arts and Letters stipends haven’t increased in 20 years because their budget remains stagnant as well.

But Danilowicz said FAU requested $4.4 million from the Florida Board of Governors to increase GTA stipends across the board. He added that FAU’s average stipend — about $10,000 for masters students — isn’t much lower than the SUS average. But GTAs in Arts and Letters get paid lower stipends than other departments in the sciences and engineering, according to the provost.

Danilowicz acknowledged that a place like Boca Raton is more expensive to live than other Florida college towns. But even though the average stipend isn’t that low compared with the SUS, it looks miniscule next to national averages.

“It just pains me to see my fellow GTAs [being paid] below the poverty line, and I don’t think the workload would be too much if it were a living wage,” Baker said.

A circular issue

Stackman says that to compensate for the low stipends and no healthcare, students have to take on side jobs, while teaching and going to classes themselves. That delays their degrees, creating a vicious cycle.

Baker believes the fact that GTAs have to take on other jobs takes a toll on the undergraduates as well.

“These freshman students who need to take this class to graduate aren’t getting the care and attention they need because we have to work other jobs,” Baker said. “If GTAs were treated better, and if we were being paid well and if we’re healthy, then that’s going to trickle down and the students are going to get better instructors and a better experience in class.”

Bradford sees the struggle GTAs are going through to live, and says that taking on stipends is his next battle.

“I do think that lower stipends makes it much more difficult to navigate programs successfully, and recruit good talented students into our programs. I hear stories that a lot of our students have to work additional jobs, and that slows you down. It impedes your progress and splits your attention,” Bradford said.

But Bradford says it won’t be an easy fight. 

“We want to help as much as we can, but our ability to help is … limited. There really aren’t new pots of money from the state, but what there is has been allocated to other parts of the university, and commitments it’s already made.”

Addison, a GTA in the Ph.D program, didn’t want to be named because they fear retribution from the college. They said everything at FAU is strategically done to market themselves in a profitable way. They wonder why FAU is hiring an eSports Arena Coordinator for $55,000 a year, but can’t set aside the money or time to increase their stipends.

Anna, another GTA who doesn’t want to be named, says that her and most of her other peers enjoy their jobs, and want to become professors in the future. But she says she doesn’t enjoy working on $9,000 a year — especially when in reality, GTAs work a lot more than the 20 hours a week they’re paid for.

Anna says their jobs consist of teaching for six hours, then grading papers and meeting with students. Grading essays can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes a piece, and they have to give in depth feedback on each one.

“The courses we teach require giving feedback on student essays. That type of work is a lot more time consuming than running a scantron through a grading machine,” Anna said.

While GTAs will have to wait on increased stipends for now, every administrator involved says it is a priority. Higher up on their list though, is healthcare. Even though they aren’t sure how they’ll come up with the money, they’re confident they’ll meet their deadline.

“It’s going to be in place for Fall 2020 for graduate students,” Stackman said. “How we get there remains to be seen.”

Cameren Boatner is the editor-in-chief of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected]