Graduate students at the University of New Mexico seek the right to bargain collectively. I support them quite simply because I have walked in their shoes.
When I returned to UNM to study for my Ph.D. after several years of teaching in the public schools, I was a graduate assistant in the Department of Special Education. In that role, I helped teach some graduate courses, and supported faculty members with their work and research, receiving a modest stipend.
Graduate stipends clearly did not constitute a living wage. In order to earn my Ph.D., I made financial decisions then that would cause any competent financial adviser to cringe. Without additional streams of income, I could not have earned my Ph.D. I cashed in my few years of retirement in the Educational Retirement system to supplement my husband’s income. There were no health care benefits, so I had to pay higher premiums to continue the group coverage I had as an APS teacher.
Today, greater challenges exist for many undergraduate and graduate students. At a meeting of the interim Legislative Health & Human Services Committee in Santa Fe recently, I learned a startling fact: A 2020 study by UNM, using a random sample of 12,000 students, found that the rate of food insecurity among UNM undergraduates was 36.8%, and among postgraduates, it was 21.2%. Food insecurity has negative effects on the health and well-being of students, as well as their ability to learn, attend classes regularly and to complete their degrees.
Clearly, I had enough options to be able to piece together a living in order to finish my Ph.D. Not all students are so privileged, nor should they have to be. Gifted students in both the arts and sciences should not have to choose between their own or their family’s financial security and their goals to earn advanced degrees. College graduates and those with postgraduate degrees are a huge asset to our state. They are the highest payers of personal income taxes, our future doctors, health care professionals, scientists, researchers and community leaders.
We must support our talented graduate students in their efforts to complete advanced degrees. They deserve the right to negotiate for working conditions and benefits to ensure financial and health security for themselves and their families. In the end, we will all benefit.