An open letter to WSU: A grad student’s plea for fair wages

When will grad students have enough money to pay for food? Enough is enough



Grad student Jocelyn McKinnon-Crowley makes an impassioned speech for a grad student union at a rally on May 4.


Jocelyn McKinnon-Crowley is a second-year MA student studying political media effects in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU. 

To the bureaucrats at WSU who don’t understand why grad students are asking for a union: 

My only guess, my only guess, is that you have never had a friend tell you they’re skipping meals because they can’t afford them. That is the only excuse I can find for the administration at Washington State University to justify the amount of money they pay graduate student employees. 

So let me tell you now, to make sure you know. This is me, a graduate student, who has five years of industry experience, working for companies you’ve heard of, who has a college degree, listening to another college graduate with industry experience, a friend, tell me that they need to skip meals. Because they don’t have the money. And this is condoned by WSU’s graduate school. They are OK with how much they pay graduate students. My only hope is simply that not everyone knows how badly grad students are paid because otherwise, this pay rate is immoral.

In case you don’t know, graduate student employees at WSU get paid by their departments individually. So, the Murrow College of Communication pays me a stipend and part of my tuition because I do research work that brings in grant money, or teaching assistant work like grading exams. 

The minimum the graduate school allows graduate students to be paid is around $14,500 a year. That’s it. That’s how much I make. On top of that, I pay another $2,000 a year in student fees. I am also not guaranteed work over the summer. Guess what this means? 

I fall below the federal poverty guidelines! I count as poor. My friends are poor. We’re all poor. 

Poor means that no matter how you cut it, you can’t afford to cover basic necessities. I want to make this crystal clear: you, as part of the WSU administration, do not mandate that the departments at WSU give their workers enough money to cover their basic needs, even though our labor keeps the university running. 

You might think, “Well, they don’t work in the summer, and they’re only supposed to work for 20 hours a week for their stipend, so we can justify poverty-level wages, and the university cannot afford to give them a pay raise anyway.”

I have never met a grad student who is not working over 20 hours a week and exhausted. So, I’m not sure why the university doesn’t see us, grad students, the people who teach a ton of your introductory courses to undergrads, as a vulnerable population. I don’t know why you’re starting to say that research assistants don’t provide a service or count as employees. I don’t know why our opinions are not given real consideration when WSU makes decisions. 

And I don’t know which administrative buttons I have to press in order to get graduate students a meaningful pay raise. I don’t know the right person to talk to in payroll or the right committee to join, and I don’t have the time to figure it out. You’ve created an unmanageable structure that makes it impossible for people like me to have their voices heard. I don’t have the right contacts at the State House to ask them to bypass you and earmark funds for student employees. I don’t have the answers. Maybe your budget shouldn’t have been built off underpaid labor to begin with. 

Instead, all I can tell you is that my friends cannot afford food with what WSU pays us. Don’t tell me that there is a food bank, don’t tell me we qualify for food stamps. Give me what I’m worth so I can decide how best to take care of myself. Oh, but we’re giving you all a pay raise? 

A 2.5% pay raise is nothing with an 8.5% inflation rate and a 5% grad student housing increase. I will tell you how it is an empty gesture from an institution with a multi-billion dollar budget. I will tell you how it makes me even angrier to see this pathetic bump, because it’s so close to nothing – and yet it’s being celebrated. 

I don’t know what the magic words are to get WSU to give us a decent wage, but, apparently, it’s not “please.” The Graduate School hasn’t budged. Graduate and Professional Student Association hasn’t been able to act. My department hasn’t listened to me. They’re in “conversation.” So, instead of saying, we’ll fix stipends eventually, I would like to remind you that the students in your programs now need money for food. 

The only way I see stipends increasing is through unionizing. So, I’d like to loudly say, support our union, the WSU Coalition of Academic Student Employees

All I can do is hope you will listen to me and all the grad students who come after me, (who might not be as loud as me), so that together, as part of a union, we can make sure we have a place to learn without worrying about where our next meal will come from.