UCSB Life Before COLA and after COVID

These are testimonials written by members of the UC Santa Barbara community. Their experiences are not uncommon. To submit your own, use our anonymous form. See more examples from UC Santa Cruz grads on their website.

We also asked our colleagues if UCSB pays grad students enough. Here’s what they said.

Coping with COVID-19

As a single mother and a full time student my resources (time and money) have always been tight. My choice to come to UCSB was largely based on the resources available to students like me. I quickly came to realize even with a job and extra resources from the school, the cost of living is extremely high. While I’m thankful for family student housing, I struggle regularly to come up with rent and to meet my families needs. COVID-19 has had a detrimental affect on my situation. I now have two young children at home with me, which I am responsible for educating (and feeding), I’ve been forced to take a leave of absence because the restaurant I work at has cut staff, and now we’re jumping into the spring quarter online with little preparation. While I acknowledge the effort all of my professors have put in, the transition is far from smooth. We’re all facing challenges with the switch causing new anxieties and/or exacerbating old ones. All while our access to mental health counseling is limited to phone conversations. The UC has done little to assist it’s students in managing this pandemic and has placed nearly all the responsibility onto the students and faculty. The UC system, being as large and impactful as it is, should be setting an example for other corporations and businesses, but so far has only left us struggling to come up with solutions on our own. I, as a low income single mom, am all too familiar with having to figure things out on my own and come up with creative solutions to get by, but for many this is a new situation. With the numbers of people affected by the pandemic in unimaginable ways I expect more from the University.

Everyone Needs a COLA

I feel lucky to have found an affordable place to live in Santa Barbara. I spent hours calling, emailing, and scrolling through listings. But the competition for housing in this town is intense. People are quick to jump on openings. We ended up finding our place through my roommate’s professional network, and we signed the 20+ page lease the day the unit went on the market. That was three weeks before we were supposed to move out of our old place. It’s a nice enough apartment, though, and I love our neighbors. We did have an incident, however, where someone under the influence attempted to enter our apartment. It was scary. It made me sad that, even in this beautiful community, we can’t afford to live somewhere where I would feel a bit safer. Since that happened, I’ve been feeling anxious at night and have had some difficulties falling asleep, thinking that loud noises might be a potential intruder.

My apartment is too far from campus to bike, and the bus takes an hour. So I drive. I don’t have anywhere to park my car where I live, so I have to mind street parking laws. It’s hard to keep up with, and I’ve gotten 2 parking tickets ($100 total) and a warning in 6 months. On top of that, the campus parking service charges quite a bit of money for grad students to park. Campus parking enforcement ticketed me even though I had a temporary parking permit. It turns out that the temporary permit expired before it even went into effect, rendering it useless. Apparently, I was supposed to get to the parking office to pick up my permit before the quarter even began. So, on top of paying for parking on campus, I have to deal with a bureaucracy that doesn’t consider my point of view and my competing responsibilities. All these expenses eat into my meager income, making it harder and harder to afford fun activities with fellow grad students. Sometimes, I walk around this town and wish that I had enough money to live here. I have to remind myself that I do live here.

All that said, I know that I am one of the more privileged grad students at UCSB. I have a partner who makes enough money to cover emergency expenses and medical bills. I have a supportive family network who help me make my rent payments. I don’t have to worry about becoming homeless or going hungry. But I worry about my future. I don’t have a retirement account or a clear path to financial independence. A COLA represents something different for everyone: for some, it’s a lifeline; for people like me, it’s a reason to worry less. I support it for my peers who are living on the edge of homelessness, and I support it for people like me who want feel more secure in their housing situations and financial futures. In the long term, I think it will make the UC system stronger and more equitable.

My Family Structure is not the Problem, UC Exploitation of Poor POC Intellectuals is the Problem

I live off-campus with two other students after being forced out of San Clemente graduate housing this past summer due to new policies that only allow graduate students secure graduate housing for two years—now one year. My rent went up $200 to $250 a month when I had to move and the process of looking for housing was anxiety-inducing and frankly, traumatic. I come from a low-income background, I faced eviction as a child and a teen, and housing insecurity and instability has been chronic in my life. I thought that having my bachelor’s degree and being accepted into a PhD program would show me a new world, one where I could be certain I would have a roof over my head, one where my family would also have a guaranteed roof over their heads, and instead, I have come to yet another institution that has withheld this dream from me and kept me as second-class labor. I still lose sleep, have chronic pain, and am on meds for anxiety and depression over the trauma of housing insecurity and poverty.

Being from a low-income immigrant family, I have the privilege of being from a culture that shows me responsibility and care for one’s elders, the beauty of giving back to those who raised us, and that there are bigger uses for my money than our human tendencies toward greed and corruption. Being from my beautiful family, it is a necessary part of my budgeting that I send money home. I have family that lacks healthcare, my elderly family members work two or more jobs, and over the summers, I have to pay their rent as well as my own without steady income due to a lack of guaranteed and consistent summer TA positions. THUS, WE MUST STOP USING WHITE MIDDLE CLASS MODELS OF SPENDING AND FORCING THEM UPON OUR STUDENTS WITH DIFFERENT FAMILY STRUCTURES.

Because my rent burden is 57% with my TAship alone and I am a grad student with elder dependents and medical bills, I have had to take up two other jobs outside my TAship. Having three jobs has brought my rent burden down only to 40 percent (and it has never dipped below this during my time at UCSB). Further, I work three jobs and none of which include my research, studying for exams, preparing for conferences, etc. In fact, I do not know how I am going to finance a conference I got accepted to and it has discouraged me from feeling like I can afford to be in my field. When our research isn’t funded, it not only tells grad students in the humanities that our research isn’t valued, but for many of us who pour our heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into our research, it tells us we are not valued. It tells us we are not valuable as scholars but as cheap laborers. This COLA is about more than money, it is about a system of higher education that tells its diverse student body that they are worthy of so much more—one that reinforces our value and worth as intellectual human beings, one that honors different family structures and financial responsibilities, one that brings its poor students a sense of safety and security.

"Our Generation is Not the First to Need a COLA"

My dad was a grad student in D.C. and we had to move to my grandparents house in West Virginia to get by, which was hours away. My brother, sister and I only saw our dad on long weekends for four years. We got help financially from our other grandparents to live on hand me down clothes and mac n cheese. Our generation is not the first to need a COLA. Shame.

In high school, we moved away from our low-income town in northern WI because they voted to not invest in a much needed new public school. Our chem lab was shut down because the ventilation was so bad. This high school was razed to the ground shortly thereafter due to all the cracks caused from overcrowding and disrepair. This is not just a higher ed issue. Shame.

As a Kindergarten teacher I watched my colleagues live with multiple roommates in substandard housing in Chicago, London and SF or they commuted for hours every day in order to put a decent roof over their heads. Shame.

My best friend and valedictorian of his college had to take on multiple adjunct teaching jobs crisscrossing CT just to get by at Yale only to enter a crushing job market and never find work in his field. Shame.

And now, I am a differently abled (disabled) Education grad student with Reflexive Sympathetic Dystrophy holding seven jobs to get by. Every marching step is literally painful for me but I’m not stopping. If not for my partner and I working, we, our baby, and baby on the way would have had to drop out or take on crushing debt by now. Shame.

To the callous administration: the leading democratic candidate called you out and shamed you, we will not be intimidated and we are not going anywhere. To quote Bob Dylan: “please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand for the times they are a changin.” We will shut down this university until you do the right thing. Cola for us, cola for all.

This is Not A Factory

Before I came to the PhD Program at UCSB, I taught at community colleges (I already had a master’s degree). I struggled as a lecturer with no benefits, no job security, and community between three different schools, each one to two hours away from where I lived. It was hard. I still lived better than I do as a graduate student at UCSB.

I was admitted to the program with “full funding”—meaning guaranteed TAships for five years. I thought this was amazing, until I saw how little the TAships paid. My partner and I live in family housing, and I still have to take out loans to make ends meet—and that is with two incomes. My credit card debt is crushing. I don’t qualify for food stamps, but given how much of my income goes to rent, a phone bill, and my medical prescription copays, I should.

I love teaching. It is my absolute passion and I can’t imagine doing anything else. But it is demoralizing to realize how little the UC values my labor and the education of our undergraduate colleagues. This is not a factory. This is an institute of higher education and it is time it operates as such.

We need a COLA. My work and the work of my fellow graduate students is important. It deserves to be compensated. We deserve a respectful and dignified wage. Now.

Strepsiades, Homeless in Isla Vista

I am currently homeless and sleep in my vehicle in Isla Vista. I have been sleeping in my vehicle for over two years now. Luckily, I am supported by a community network so that I have a shower to use, laundry access, and even use of a kitchen. However, if I could afford it, I would undoubtedly pay for housing. I have nowhere to store my stuff. Right now, I have moved tons of my belongings into my office, have been forced to hide some of my books in a storage closet in a grad student lounge, and I have multiple boxes and bags stored in the attic of the department chair. Last quarter I caught the flu and it took over a month before I recovered. Something similar happened to me the first month of the winter quarter. One of the biggest disadvantages of being homeless is that it gets extremely cold outside (even in California). Even though I have super-blankets, I still have to breathe in 30 degree air at night. My throat has become charred these past several months. Being homeless also goes hand in hand with other forms of insecurity, including food insecurity, legal insecurity, and an overall deleterious effect on my mental health. Being a grad student, trying to finish my dissertation and be on the job market, is pretty tough as it is. Now imagine that you are in constant fear of police harassment. Or you are trying to go to sleep at night and loud college students start rocking your vehicle, or peeing on it, or puking outside. These things actually happen!

The entire UC system is facing a crisis about grad students salaries and the unaffordable cost of housing. I count myself as one of those who has suffered through this crisis. It is simply impossible to make ends meet. For example, my private student loans from my undergrad education are no longer capable of being deferred. I now have to pay $800 per month to Navient. That payment, along with rent, is my entire paycheck. These past two years I have actually had to take out more loans to pay off my existing loans. I have felt compelled to engage in risky economic activity simply because I cannot afford even a meager life here in California. Like Aristophanes’s character Strepsiades I am stricken with nightmares by my debts. Even if I were to obtain a tenure-track job, my academic work suffers because of the intense forms of insecurity (housing, food, mental health, economic) I experience.

International Student Desperation

I have always envied the American students because they can slave themselves for multiple jobs in addition to the pressure of teaching, publishing, research, and academic networking and worrying about the job market. Me, as an international student, I would love to be a “slave,” but I am not even eligible to become one. Needless to say, everything that the university does not pay comes from my parents’ pocket and my credit cards. My work requires a lot of international traveling for conferences and archival research work. I have piled up almost $20,000 in credit card debt in addition to my parents’ support. My relationship with my parents has become increasingly toxic and fragile over the past few years due to economic reasons, and I have finally decided to call quits on it. Now I am solely relying on my paychecks and my credit card limits. If UCSB fires me because I cannot afford to live here and voice out my reality, then I just have to write a mediocre dissertation. I cannot produce excellent research, be a responsible teacher on top of being poor. I have also quit dating because I have no money to pay uber and my share of food on dates. As a feminist, I can only wait until I am economically stable to date. Maybe my eggs will all die out by that time. But I consider that as a price I pay to be in graduate school. I know there are probably no tenure-track jobs out there. I am mentally preparing myself to work as a high school teacher afterward. Or join the military. Or whatever.

Supporting an International Spouse

I am a married International student working within the Humanities. My spouse is not allowed to work given his F2 visa requirements, so we are effectively only allowed one income. The cost of including my spouse in my UCSB health insurance is prohibitive, so we acquire travel insurance whenever we go back to our home country. This is not an ideal situation since travel insurance only covers emergency medical procedures, and whenever he does seek medical attention the bureaucracy for coverage and refunds is painstaking, and keeps me from the research work I am doing for the university. As far as health coverage goes, I have forgone several medical procedures because I cannot afford to cover my UCSHIP deductibles.

When I got accepted into my program I applied for Family Student Housing but was waitlisted for an undetermined period of time. While in our home country, we had to seek housing through the UCSB off-campus listings (which we thought was a trustworthy database) and made arrangements to live in a room in a family’s house in Noleta while we waited for Family Student Housing. The room was costly (about the same we currently pay for our FSH apartment), our “landlords” invasive, we were barely allowed to cook and not allowed to do our own laundry—in sum, living there was awful, but we could not afford to move anywhere else. We lived there for more than three months, without a contract despite my insistence on it. I had no backing from UCSB for getting my deposit back once I was able to move into FSH. The rooms in said house are still included in the UCSB off-campus listings even though I communicated the issues we encountered to the department responsible for the listings.

Even though we saved enough to have a small emergency fund (from which we are constantly borrowing), we could not get by without resorting to the Miramar Food Pantry and the Food Bank on campus. When I first got here I needed to buy a laptop computer, since the one I originally had was very heavy and outdated, but could not afford it. I sought Emergency Funds, which I did not get, so I had to save for about a year to be able to purchase the computer I currently own. This hindered my ability to keep up with my classes and research projects for that year. I was only able to furnish my FSH apartment by getting free furniture through friends and Craigslist.

I cannot afford to travel more than once per year to my home country, and it is a constant fear of mine that I will need to fly there for a family emergency. It considerably adds to the financial stress I am already under. I am constantly homesick and missing my family, as they cannot afford to come visit me either.

My field and research require a considerable amount of traveling within the US and abroad, but I cannot afford to travel on my own. I cannot afford to lease or maintain a car, which prevents me from attending significant events in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I mostly get around by Greyhound and Amtrak, which are not always dependable and are often time-consuming. I have been living in the United States for three years and have never been outside of California, which is a considerable hindrance in my field. Last school year I presented papers at six different graduate symposia in my field. I received partial financial support for two of them from the host universities and a GSA travel grant ($150) for another. My department claimed not to have funds to support my presentations. The out-of-pocket expense heavily impacted my finances, while my department was getting visibility and being praised for the work I was developing.

International students are in a specifically precarious situation and financial difficulties are heavily impactful to their general well-being and ability to work.

Sleeping in My Car

It’s difficult to find affordable housing in the area. I have had to move back to my parents’ home in Orange County and commute to school. I lived in my car for the days I was at school (three days out of the week). During winter quarter, it was too cold to sleep in my car so I had to take up quarters in my department. I have been fortunate to get family student housing from the long waitlist but my $1,002 rent takes up 62 percent of my $1,611.23 monthly income (set up as a four-month stipend for the quarter).

At a Loss for Words

Because of the rent burden, the balance of my savings account is—true story—fifty-seven cents. When I threw up blood last quarter, I couldn’t get the medical exams I needed. It turns out that as a TA, I cannot afford my chronic condition.

Educator by Day, Vagrant by Night

In order to manage the cost of living in Santa Barbara, I, a grown woman, live in a van. I teach complex processes to undergrads during the day, then I literally sleep in a van at night. I’ve lived in a van for three years now. I often have nightmares about my safety at night. I keep this situation hidden from my department, because I worry that it will affect their perception of my professionalism and my future job opportunities. So, I suffer in silence. I show up to work looking polished and professional. I kick ass. I do my job well. I can afford to pay all of my bills, but it’s because I live in a van. Alone. It gets cold. I need to pee at night. I’m always scared of being seen. As a result of chronically eking by, I am exhausted.

Impossibilities of Childcare

Let’s talk about childcare. At first sight, it seems that UCSB provides amazing opportunities for childcare to graduate students. They provide up to $3,300 childcare subsidy to TAs each year. Note that this only covers TAs, and first-year international students usually are not allowed to work as a TA. Furthermore, in order to be eligible to receive this money, your childcare provider needs to be a registered institution or have a social security number. That is, if your babysitter is an undocumented immigrant, you can not receive any subsidy. Beyond childcare subsidy, UCSB also hosts a children’s center that provides daycare services. Yet, it is very hard to find a place in their infant classes. First-time applicants usually wait more than twelve months to find a place in their infant classes. I waited for eighteen months. So, what can parents do while waiting for their child’s placement at UCSB’s Children’s Center? Childcare services start from $15 per hour. That means you need to pay at least $2,400 per month for infant care. Add to this $1,200 rent per month. So, I paid $3,600 per month only for infant care and rent during the first year of my studies at UCSB, and I still need to pay debts I accumulated during this period.

Overburdened and Only Human

Throughout my time at UCSB, I have struggled to make ends meet. Moving here to pursue my dream of earning a PhD drained all my savings and put me into credit card debt, and I soon found out that my UCSB salary was not enough to cover my living expenses, much less pay off debt or build a savings in case of emergency. In my first month of the program I took on two additional jobs (one on campus and one at SBCC) and worked twenty-two hours a week in addition to my program. After two quarters here, I was forced to take on an additional on campus position, now working three additional jobs. Throughout my time at UCSB, I have consistently worked three or more side jobs to cobble together enough money to pay rent, car payment, insurance, bills, food, etc. This means that I have less time to devote to my own writing and research because—as is the case for many of us—my teaching is never sacrificed. I am committed to being a supportive, caring, available TA for my students. Working these extra jobs, then, means that my research is delayed and takes a back seat so that I can earn enough money to live. I already anticipate this will delay my time to degree and success on the job market. Even with these extra jobs, I have to go into credit card debt to pay for travel to complete research or attend conferences to complete my dissertation and build my CV. One emergency, and I am back in credit card debt or, worse, unable to pay rent. As is inevitable, I have had several life emergencies (unexpected vet bills, the death of a close family member, a car accident that totaled my car) that have made my living in Santa Barbara on my salary untenable without additional loans or credit card debt. We get paid so little there is simply not enough to save, to create a buffer for life or emergency or simply being human. The university expects us to work at an inhuman level of hyperproductivity and the conditions under which we work are so dehumanizing.

Unsafe Housing

I currently spend close to 50 percent of my income to live in university-owned housing, which was a significantly cheaper option than any surrounding off campus options. Prior to that, I lived in an apartment that had unhealthy living conditions from mold and asbestos. I felt trapped because I could not afford any other living situations within a reasonable distance to campus. Education was supposed to be a way out of financial insecurity. It was supposed to create options and open doors, but it currently seems like a trap to exploit graduate students and leave them in a position where their labor is not fairly valued and their options are limited.

Converted Garage "Gem"

I’ve lived in a converted garage “studio” that wasn’t officially up to code because the owner liked being able to “give graduate students a break” and “only charge $1,000 per month” for their negligence. This spot is considered a gem in Goleta and Santa Barbara.

The UC "Treats Me like a Laborer First and a Student Second"

I’m a fifth year and since halfway though my second year have been consistently working two jobs (TAing in two departments, doing tasks for an academic journal for the pay) in order to stay afloat, financially. I have chronic health issues and which frequently get exacerbated by my intense work schedule and I am constantly struggling to find time to do my own research because I’m working two jobs. I feel like I’m one of millions of Americans working multiple jobs to stay afloat—it feels like this university treats me as a laborer first and a student second. Paying me a COLA would absolutely invert this hierarchy.

Feeling Used and Abandoned

The first year I was here, I was hungry. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with two twenty-one-year-old men (I’m not a man) because it was cheaper than San Clemente. I spent a lot of money on gas because this cheap option was out on the Mesa, but that still made it cheaper than the campus-provided subsidized housing. I still could only afford to spend $50 on groceries a month, especially in the fall quarter when my TA salary was as low as $1,500 a month. I lived on boxes of Trader Joe’s microwave macaroni and cheese, gas station beef jerky, and the occasional subway sandwich (my one meal for the day). Since then, I’ve had to hustle to find ways to make ends meet, driving for Lyft and working as a server every summer and fall. I’ve won a few awards at conferences and on campus, but am still told that I need to stop “working so much” on other things in order to “focus on my dissertation” and “enjoy grad school.” I can’t do that and still feel secure that I’ll make rent next month. I lived better working at Olive Garden in the Midwest than I do now. I’m tired, I’m going gray, and I’m working myself to death to live here and also do the work I came here to do. I’m not living in my car (yet), but it’s come real damn close at times. And it shouldn’t. I’m not a poor financial planner and as a first generation student, this seemed to me like my one opportunity out of generations of financial struggle. I’m sad and disgusted and angry that this administration can use me as a diversity number, and then make me find my own way to live here. Shameful indeed.