I am a senior here at the University, and next year I’ll be attending graduate school here as well. Today I am going to tell you a little bit about my experience as a working-class, work-study student.
Over the last four years, I have held a few different jobs, including working at the campus dining halls, daycare and babysitting services, Briarwood Mall in retail, McDonalds and Coldstone. I am currently an employee at University Health Services, making $9.75 an hour as an assistant in human resources.
I didn’t continue in my previous positions for various reasons, but they all had a few things in common:
None of my former employers offered me any kind of health insurance. My schedule was not consistent.
There was little to no opportunity for career advancement. No one paid over $10 per hour. There were always unresolved issues between employees and management. There was no sympathy for life as a student. None of these are jobs that look really exceptional on my resume.
But without experience, extra time or connections, it isn’t easy to find an opportunity that doesn’t fall under this umbrella of occupations.
Being a first-generation student from a low-income family, it’s a necessity that I work while going through school. I don’t have the option to do only one. But the rigor of our academics and the commitment needed to advance in the workplace are constantly working against each other in my life. Even now, I only work 15 hours a week, 20 on a good week — this in combination with my school schedule, and homework is very tiring. Especially now, when I’m trying to prepare myself for graduation and graduate school.
For the most part, my income alone has not been sufficient in meeting my basic needs. I have made up for the difference in loans from the University and favors from family members who cannot really afford to help me. I have tried my best to cut all financial corners over the years, (I’ve never had a car, I have lived in Ypsilanti since sophomore year for cheaper rent, had food stamps and state health insurance at one point, and lived with roommates), but all of these solutions were short-term, and ultimately the problem lies in the lack of support I am receiving from my job.
Though the University has been helpful in providing what resources it can, its help mostly consists of loans, which will benefit them more in the long-term than me. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would allow me more time to focus on my studies while still receiving a sufficient income. It would also save me somewhat from drowning myself in more student loan debt later.
A current issue I am facing as a work-study student is requesting a higher pay grade once I begin graduate school. Even though I’ll have a degree from one of the best institutions in the country, my pay will increase by just 25 to 75 cents from the $9.75 I am making right now. How can the University expect other businesses to pay and treat us properly when they don’t always follow suit?
I have worked at my job for two years, going into my third, and with my family’s income and my position as a full-time graduate student, I think I should be paid at least $14. There are other graduate students on this campus who make that amount, if not more. The University needs to take a greater responsibility for making wages for student workers more consistent. Getting paid a higher wage is something I think about often, but with the University monopolizing my time, I feel silly applying for jobs that can give me the support I need. I need health insurance, or at least sick days. I need a higher wage. But I also need a professional community that understands my position as a student, and how big of an accomplishment school is for me and my family.
I know my story is unique, but there are many other first-generation, low-income, over-worked and underpaid students on our campus. Seek them out and listen to their stories because they matter. This problem is a real one. And it’s also something I didn’t think I could complain about until involving myself with the U of M Fight for $15 campaign.
As students, we have to remember that this is our campus. We put all of our time and energy into the University. Some of us spend literally everything, and I mean everything, that we have to be here and even promise to pay back loans we may never have the income to afford. That’s a scary reality, but we also have the power to change the structures that determine how we live. It’s going to take mobilizing students like myself, and more resourceful students who can empathize with us, to get the ball rolling.
This issue is important because no student should have to choose between supporting themselves right now and preparing to support themselves long-term. That in itself is contradictory. Though this may not be a problem the average Michigan student faces (because most have financial support), it’s a problem across college campuses and for workers everywhere. Starting an undergraduate workers’ association and raising the minimum wage for all University employees, both directly employed and subcontracted through University Unions and Catering, is the first step in the fight for a living wage in Washtenaw County and across the state. We could be innovators in creating a space where student workers have a voice and are initiators of the next big labor movement.
Join us on Wednesday, April 15, at noon in front of South Quad for a rally on campus and at 3:45 p.m. at the Cube to support Detroit fast-food workers in their fight for a living wage and the right to unionize. For more information and to get involved, please visit our Facebook page.
Kalyn Sanderfer is an LSA senior.