USF grad student fights possible benefit cuts

- A graduate assistant at the University of South Florida is becoming a voice for other GAs in an ongoing bargaining negotiation over their wages, health coverage and benefits.

While tuition is covered under their positions as GAs, students said the additional $10-12,000 a year stipend they receive is not enough to cover their cost of living.

Ariane Anderson is a graduate assistant in the Communications Department at USF. She is also battling stage 3 cancer. 

"I got a bill the other day from my hospital for $12,000. I thought, 'That's how much I make in a year, before taxes,' and it made me cry," Anderson explained.

Anderson is currently undergoing hormone therapy and is fearful the university could decrease her health subsidy in the coming years, leaving her with thousands of dollars in uncovered costs for her treatment.

"Right now, I'm looking at a $15,000 a month drug therapy. Chemo will be next," Anderson said, who was diagnosed in 2009. "I'm not complaining about having cancer. I'm not angry about it. I want to represent those people that are marginalized, pushed aside and told, 'you'll be fine.'" 

Students members of Graduate Assistants United (GAU), have had ongoing negotiations with the university, most recently meeting earlier this month to discuss higher annual wages, tuition waivers and fee reimbursement, according to the university's student newspaper.

The group also said they are discouraged from having a second job because demands of teaching and research can be high.

University officials said they are unable to provide a wage increase, and cover rising costs for health care, which they said is about 30-percent higher than years past.

"We set aside a certain amount of money to try to deal with the salary and compensation issues of all of our employee groups, so we have a fixed amount that we're working with," said Dean Dwayne Smith, who serves as Senior Vice Provost, heading graduate studies. "We've already covered a fairly substantial increase in health care. We've actually seen astronomical increases in health insurance premiums for grad students."

According to the university, when tuition, health care and the annual stipend are totaled, graduate assistants get an estimated $45-48,000 per year.

They emphasized graduate assistant positions are not meant to serve as fulltime, permanent jobs.

"We're trying to do the best that we can for our students, but it's very difficult in this budgetary environment," Smith explained.

However, Anderson said she does not feel GAs are asking for too much, because they provide so much for the university.

"We're producing research for the university that is going to benefit the community," said Anderson. "I fill my hours, 60-80 hours a week of work for the students that are bringing more students in. How can I recommend the graduate schools to my students when I feel as if I'm being mocked?"

Anderson said she hopes to work as a professor and researcher, in addition to working with a cancer treatment center as a liaison between patients and staff after graduating, but first, she has to find ways to pay for her education and treatment.

"I'm not looking to get rich. I'm not looking for a handout. I'm just looking to get by," she said.

According to the GAU website, a general student body meeting is scheduled March 3 to discuss a counter proposal for the university.

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