Group mounts campaign to facilitate future health care coverage for MTSU graduate assistants

Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines 

A group of MTSU graduate assistants is mounting a campaign in the hopes of facilitating future health care coverage for graduate assistants. The group has stated that a change is necessary due to both the schedule and lifestyle that graduate students have to undertake at the university.

As of now, graduate assistants at MTSU receive a tuition waiver and a stipend in exchange for the work that they perform on campus, which includes teaching classes, taking classes, writing and grading papers, assisting faculty with research and holding office hours. While they do receive compensation for their efforts, medical expenses are often too burdensome for graduate assistants, and most are not able to work off campus due to their busy schedules.

“We can’t get a job off campus because our department doesn’t want us to,” said Eric Hughes. “Or, if they let you, you can’t get a full-time job that offers health care benefits. You can’t work a 40-hour job and teach two classes, as well as being a Ph.D student.”

Hughes is a 27-year-old MTSU graduate teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate in the English Department.

“I’m uninsured, so there is no general primary care,” Hughes said. “I had an emergency last summer. I didn’t go to the emergency room or do a follow-up with a doctor. As far as mental health care, I forgo treatment and get medications that I have to have through a charitable organization. For me, that’s how I cobble it together. For the medications that I absolutely have to have, I’ve had to find some weird alternative route.”

Many college-age students stay on their parent’s health care plan until they are 26, but a large number of graduate students are older, making that option inapplicable. For people like Hughes, one can easily be “priced out” of the insurance marketplace. And, according to Hughes, one-third of graduate students eventually incur mental health issues.

“Unfortunately, I’m within that third,” Hughes said.

Graduate assistants also have to deal with and juggle responsibilities that many other college-age men and women do not have to deal with.

“Because of our age, we are more likely to have health issues that undergraduates wouldn’t,” said Amy Harris-Aber, 35, a research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in the English Department. “For instance, one of my friends and his wife just had a baby. Another one of my friends is pregnant. So, health care is something that we need, not just for regular reasons but for things that happen to people that are a little later in their life.”

“I have a serious illness that required brain surgery years ago and requires ongoing medication,” said Joey O’Dell, 46, a graduate assistant teacher and master’s candidate in the MTSU Public History Department. “So, right now, I’m lucky that I am insured, but I’m paying $1,200 a month for that insurance. And, it’s because my medications are $2,200 per month. So, I’ve had to beg, borrow, everything. I do without a lot of things so that I can have my health care.”

In addition to not being able to stay on their parent’s insurance, some graduate assistants fall victim to the Medicaid gap in Tennessee. Since the state chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in 2015, there are still thousands of Americans that remain uncovered due to their income.

“I don’t make enough money to get help from ACA because they think that I should be covered by TennCare,” O’Dell said. “I don’t make so little that I’m covered by TennCare. So, I fall straight in the gap. I know a lot of people that do.”

Students at MTSU can go to the campus pharmacy for free check-ups, but medications, some testing and various treatments are not covered without insurance.

“If this was a school where I could go to a clinic and get my prescriptions taken care of, that would be awesome,” O’Dell said. 

Despite the issue not being regularly recognized at MTSU, Hughes stated that expanded coverage is not an outlandish idea. The University of Memphis and schools in the University of Tennessee system provide health care coverage to graduate assistants.

“They’ve seen it as a great benefit to their universities and their graduate programs,” Hughes said.

Many graduate students are a part of union chapters like the Graduate Workers Organizing Committee, which is part of the statewide United Campus Workers union, that can offer benefits. Others, however, can feel pushed to reject union offers.

“You want to maintain a good working relationship with the professors and the administration in your department,” Harris-Aber said. “So, I do think there is some intimidation to not join there. I have seen it myself.”

GWOC is spearheading the mounting of the health care campaign at MTSU and was formed by graduate assistants, such as Hughes and Harris-Aber, in the fall 2017 semester. Hughes said that they didn’t feel that they had a presence in the MTSU chapter of the statewide union because the union was not actively recruiting graduate workers. So, they decided to create GWOC.

“We saw that our role was often subsumed strategically to our positions as students,” Hughes said. “We want to bring graduate workers together from all disciplines. We want to start raising our voices and flexing our muscles as labor.”

“Our campus is really focused on student success, and I think if you have graduate students who are trying to work for extra income and do everything else that is necessary for their position, the people who are taking classes from them are potentially the ones who suffer,” Harris-Aber said. “There is such thing as too little butter spread on too much bread.”

At this stage in the campaign, members of GWOC are primarily trying to raise awareness for the issue. Petitions regarding the issue are currently being placed around campus.

“They don’t know what we need if we’re not talking to administration about this,” Harris-Aber said. “We want to work with administration in order to make things better for graduate students. That way, they feel better about coming here and investing their time and their effort and their research into this campus.”

While the campaign for improved graduate health care is being spearheaded by GWOC, Hughes noted that one does not have to be a member of the union to join and support the campaign. Representatives of the campaign will be holding a town hall meeting on Thursday at 3 p.m. in room S208 of the Business and Aerospace Building, in which representatives will explain the issue and their stories. Attendees are encouraged to voice their input and suggestions, and a survey will be handed out during the event.

“That is one concrete thing that we can ask people to attend so that they can find out more about this initiative and exactly what we are trying to do in order to get the ball rolling on this,” Harris-Aber said. 

“We don’t know how our university can best approach this,” Hughes said. “We’re not saying there is only one way and you better do it our way. Our goal is to get us access to affordable health care. Whatever shape that ultimately takes is up for question.”

Harris-Aber said that she doesn’t believe that the university has not provided health care to graduate assistants out of malicious intent. She said that the issue simply has not been pushed enough.

“I think this is another good argument for why we need to exist as an organization,” Harris-Aber said. “They don’t know what we need until we vocalize it and make it very evident to them that this is important. If we’re trying to become a research school, this is something we need to do in order to make ourselves more competitive.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email

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  1. Avatar
    March 1, 2018

    If you are international student – all you get for GTA is $750 as a master and this is the only income you can have. To insure yourself you have to spend $100, cheapest housing is about $500. If you do not even buy any clothes or coffee, cook yourself – there still no way you can fit in $150 if you had even minor health problem.
    In case you are married – your wife cannot work and you cannot claim her as a dependent. To insure her you need additional $500 and if you are unlucky to have a kid – $250 for each. But if you have a wife and a kid – your housing is about $1000. I’ll stop here since there is no way to survive in such conditions.

    • Avatar
      Amy Harris-Aber
      April 6, 2018

      I would encourage you to email me – we want to meet and hear from more graduate teaching assistants working for the university. Your voices matter to us, and we need all of you to help with our initiative. We are aware of the (often dire) circumstances surrounding this issue, and our community needs voices like yours to push for real, concrete change.

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