Amid the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, graduate students have come together to ask the University for support.
In an email written by the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO), Graduate Student Association (GSA), the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Student Assembly (JHSPH SA), and Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), graduate students voiced their expectations for the University.
They argued that Master’s students should not face any penalty for COVID-19-induced delays to their work and that students should receive at least one semester of extended support from the University. They also stressed that students currently using University healthcare should be given a list of external healthcare options once they graduate. The University should not require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for future applicants, they reasoned, because the pandemic has disrupted the GRE testing process.
“The provosts and deans of the university should engage with graduate students to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and should make their decision-making process transparent and responsive to faculty, students, and staff,” they wrote.
Renee Eastwood, the director of academic and student affairs for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and Christine Kavanagh, the assistant dean for graduate and postdoctoral academic affairs, spoke about their roles in supporting graduate students in an email to The News-Letter.
“Graduate students can expect for us to continue to provide COVID-19 related updates and notifications of enhanced University services as they are released, hold community meetings for feedback and connection, and for us to work to facilitate flexibility in academic expectations,” they wrote.
In an interview with The News-Letter, fourth-year PhD student in Physics Peter Weck expressed discontent with current University efforts to support graduate students.
“I don’t think they’ve done either what they’re capable of doing to support graduate students or what they should do. It’s been more words than it’s been material support. I would like to see that the other way around,” Weck said. “Most crucial in my mind is ensuring anyone who’s supported this semester has the option of having a stipend for another semester just to provide people with basic psychological and material security.”
Third-year PhD student in Anthropology and TRU Student Organizer Heba Islam said in an interview with The News-Letter that she feels the University has done nothing to support its graduate students.
She noted that TRU, GRO and GSA met with the Office of the Vice Provost to present a principles document that the University should follow in deciding on how to support graduate students. Islam stated that their demands were ignored, which resulted in TRU circulating a petition listing a set of demands. TRU is currently organizing a letter-writing campaign to the Board of Trustees as well as the deans and provosts to ask that these demands be taken seriously.
Islam also reflected on the email from University President Ronald J. Daniels which detailed the financial losses facing the University because of the pandemic.
“I find it incredibly disingenuous when Daniels sends out an email saying that their biggest concern is the Hopkins community because everything screams otherwise,” she said. “This is not sustainable. You can’t have graduate students graduating in a nonexistent job market, snatching away their health insurance, telling them they’re not allowed to talk to the deans, telling them that they just don’t have the money to compensate us, telling them they’re possibly going to have to do this online teaching for an indefinite period of time.”
Marios Falaris, a fourth-year PhD student in Anthropology, shared Islam’s concerns, questioning the University’s decisions to furlough staff given the resources it had.
“These are exactly the moments that all kinds of workers employed by the University are facing increased medical costs and all kinds of things. This is exactly not the time to be laid off,” Falaris said. “This whole thing about all of the losses the university is facing financially is said out of the context of the magnitude of the endowment of this university.”
Islam pointed to the University’s endowment as well, noting her confusion as to how the decision to implement the austerity measures was decided upon.
“When we say, look at all the ways this pandemic has affected us — economically, our mental health, our research, our work, our teaching — and figure out a way to compensate us with your huge endowment, and the response is just ‘We’re so poor,’ who is buying that? There’s a lot of anger right now. The University is going to have to reckon with it at some point because it can’t go on like this,” she said.
She also noted that TRU, GRO, GSA and JHSPH SA demands for fellowship and teaching opportunities in the future for students who were supposed to be graduating this semester were crucial because it would allow them to have security in their health insurance. She expressed discontent that the University was going to allow graduate students to graduate into the conditions of the pandemic without health insurance.
Eastwood and Kavanagh cited that the University is currently offering a new mental telehealth program, various wellness-oriented virtual workshops and other forms of support.
Despite these supports, many graduate students are still struggling to get in the headspace to complete their work.
Joanna Behrman, a sixth-year graduate student studying History of Science and Technology, also highlighted the financial pressures graduate students are facing in an interview with The News-Letter. She explained that she believes the University’s response to graduate student conditions has been negligible.
“The only way they’ve helped me is by making me laugh every time they send me an email. From laying off contracted workers to telling people, ‘We have mental health apps that can help you in this time of crisis,’ to just passing the buck on making concrete changes that might help graduate students. It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s worse than nothing, because they say that with a smile on their faces and an email that’s like, ‘We care. Here, download this mobile app that will show you a smiley face.’ That’s not going to pay my rent.”
Rebekka Paisner, a second-year PhD student in Biology spoke in an interview with The News-Letter about the struggles she has faced trying to work from home.
“I’m definitely not as productive as I want to be. When I come home, it’s supposed to be a safe-haven. It’s supposed to be a place where I can rest. To bring my work with me home is very difficult,” she said. “I’ve had three panic attacks in the past two months, and I’ve had to seek counseling outside of what the health care here provides in that time. It’s incredibly difficult.”
Currently, Paisner works in her roommate’s bedroom; she does not know, however, where she will be able to work once her roommate returns to Baltimore.
Many graduate students have faced setbacks in their research due to social distancing regulations.
Islam outlined some of the ways research has been affected.
“People who need to travel for fieldwork and face-to-face research can’t do it. People working in labs that aren’t directly COVID-related have been put on hold. Library resources are incredibly limited right now, we don’t have access to a physical library,” she said.
In addition, graduate students who were studying abroad this semester have faced unique challenges.
Falaris spoke specifically about students who had been doing research abroad in an interview with The News-Letter.
“I was granted the Fulbright last year, began my research in mid-fall, and I was in the middle of my research project. The Fulbright program announced very quickly that it was suspending its global programs on March 19. All the Fulbright fellowships were also suspended without an option of renewing,” Falaris said. “I was sent back from India where I was doing my research to the US without any kind of extra support.”
Weck echoed this sentiment. He was recently sent home from conducting research in France and feels that the lack of in-person interaction impacted his work.
“I’m a theoretical physicist, and that means I need to talk to people and work with people in order to make progress with my work. It’s very collaborative. Being restricted to Zoom in order to communicate just makes it a lot less natural and more tedious to do my daily work,” he said.
Islam, however, voiced uncertainty about the state of communication between the administration and the student body.
“One really basic ask has been, ‘If you are making sure that the deans are responsible for how funding is being distributed at this time, let us have a meeting with the Dean.’ It hasn’t happened,” she said. “To ask for an extension of funding when our research is basically shut down this semester is not a huge ask. To ask that money is taken from the endowment to compensate for the losses we might be facing instead of laying vulnerable people off is not a huge ask.”
She considered the future of graduate students at the University, referring to the growing anger among the graduate student body.
“What I’ve noticed is definitely an increasing mobilization amongst graduate students that didn’t exist a few months ago. We already have such few things to stand on, and even those are being taken away from us,” Islam said. “Now the question is, if there’s nothing left to lose, why not actually give weight to our anger and think about how to mobilize around this as a graduate student body in a more organized way?”