Penn State’s Medical Leave Policy Hurts Graduate Students

(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.


Israel: Some Photos and Jumbled Thoughts

Hey there, blog! Earlier this summer, I went on what might be one of the most awesome trips ever: 10 days in Israel, for free, with a ton of cool people who are now my friends. Oh, and I rode a camel (no big deal). In case you haven’t guessed, this was indeed the famed Taglit-Birthright Israel, the free trip for Jewish kids to visit the homeland, eat falafel, and hang out with other Jews. It was great, and gave me a way to connect with my family/cultural history in a way that I hadn’t previously. (Also, it temporarily shook me out of the post-college/job-I-despise/what-am-I-doing-with-my-life slump, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The other day my brother and I were joking that while many of my Facebook friends are posting about the BDS movement and Palestinian recognition, I was posting what amounted to, “wheee! I’m on a camel in the desert this is AWESOME!” Which made me feel like a bit of an asshole. Continue reading “Israel: Some Photos and Jumbled Thoughts”

Oh, Vonnegut.

As others have said previously, the introduction to Slaughterhouse Five may be the best thing Kurt Vonnegut has ever written (and he’s written a lot of good shit, natch). Just look at this excerpt:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand-glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. they do not love one another because they do not love themselves. Once this is understood, the disagreeable behavior of American enlisted men in German prisons ceases to be a mystery.

(via &stunning.)