(Originally posted at Onward State)
When a graduate student at Penn State becomes ill or injured for an extended period of time, they enter the strange, labyrinthine world of the Graduate School’s medical leave guidelines. Instead of promoting healing, the guideline jeopardizes graduate students’ health, financial stability, and graduate trajectories.
I suffered a concussion in June of 2014, and endured several months of constant headaches, fatigue, memory loss, and dizziness. A specialist at Penn State Hershey diagnosed me with “post-concussion syndrome,” recommending “brain rest” and limited activity until my symptoms resolved.
Health and recovery were the least of my worries. Although my doctor at PSU Hershey encouraged me to take medical leave for the entire fall semester, using this much-needed time to heal meant losing my health insurance and half of my yearly income. Despite doctors’ orders, I had little choice but to continue my graduate studies and research assistantship.
Penn State urgently needs standardized policies to protect graduate employees who are ill or injured. The Graduate School’s guidelines regarding medical leave are unclear and unenforced, and serious medical concerns are instead handled ad-hoc on a department-by-department basis. While students have a right to medical leave, the guideline states that if a student needs more than six weeks of leave, they can lose their stipend and health insurance. Graduate students have no safety net.
Despite the fact that graduate students teach courses, work in labs, and are compensated by Penn State for our work, we are not considered university employees. As a result, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers us no protection. Furthermore, students and departments are often unaware of the details of the graduate school’s policies. With no formal organization to advocate for graduate employees, we are left to try to negotiate within a system that does not prioritize our health and wellbeing.
Injured and concerned about my own health care coverage, I reached out to my department for support. Since I was injured and needed medical care, I could not risk losing my health insurance, but I also could not simply take six weeks off and jump into graduate courses mid-semester. I was told that by taking more than six weeks of leave, “you would in effect be taking a hiatus from the program and would lose both your [financial] support and health insurance.” So medical leave, while technically an option, was not feasible within Penn State’s guidelines.
My doctor insisted on a reduced course load if I was not granted a semester of medical leave. However, Penn State has no provision for part-time work or a reduced load for graduate students. My only real option was to struggle through the semester on a full course load, defying doctor’s orders. And while my professors and advisor were accommodating, my work and health both suffered.
A 2014 report conducted at Penn State on parental and medical leave found that Penn State lags behind other major research universities in providing a formal parental leave policy for graduate students, an issue which extends to medical leave as well. Students who are better equipped to advocate for themselves tend to have better outcomes, while the most vulnerable students lack protection.
Penn State grads need a graduate employee union that can provide a framework to negotiate benefits and stop unreasonable policies from hurting us. As is, the current policy simply does not provide adequate protection and flexibility for students dealing with illness, injury, and other life-changing events. Through a graduate employee union, we could directly negotiate with Penn State’s Graduate School to implement and enforce a comprehensive and usable medical leave policy. We need a policy that enables students to prioritize their health without jeopardizing their degrees.