Image: Hannah Griffin

Tight budgets are a common problem for graduate students anywhere, but especially so for those pursuing their second and third degrees in New York City, the city of sky-high rent, expensive food, and limitless ways to spend your money and have a good time.

When I moved from Fernie, British Columbia to New York to begin my studies as a graduate journalism student this September, my monthly rent increased by over $1,000. While the thought of rent that high for a tiny, shared studio apartment made my palms clammy for most of the summer, I thought I could try to cut some costs by cooking most meals at home. Nice try. Despite being a relatively frugal person, I seem to bleed money through the aisles of grocery stores, shamefully carrying $4 avocados and $7 boxes of granola bars in my basket.

As a Canadian, I am one of about 40-45 per cent of international graduate students at NYU. This diversity is a great part of studying at the school, as I have classmates in my Magazine Writing program from India, the Philippines, Scotland and Italy. However, being on a student visa makes money concerns even more real. Although it depends on the kind of student visa you have, in most cases international students are only allowed to work on campus for their first year. My illusions of working in some cool, hipster-filled Brooklyn café were dashed pretty much as soon as I sat down to fill out my stacks of visa paperwork in June. The rules about not working off campus are strict, and as much as it would be nice to make some cash, the idea of getting booted back across the border with only half a Master’s degree is considerably less appealing than eating oatmeal and honey for dinner.

While I could go on at length about how expensive New York is, at the end of the day, like many of the 17,000 graduate students at NYU, I feel it will be worth it to have a graduate degree from such a great school. In addition, a recent vote means that NYU graduate student employees may have a little more pocket change and an easier time managing the challenges of living in the Big Apple in the coming years.

In mid-December, 1247 graduate students from NYU and NYU Polytechnic voted to form a collective bargaining unit associated with the United Auto Worker’s Union, following an eight-year fight for union recognition. This means that graduate students will have the ability to bargain collectively over the specifics of their work and teaching positions, and hopefully their benefits and pay. This decision also makes NYU the first private university in the States to have students join with a national union.

Anthropology PhD candidate Natasha Raheja is looking forward to some of the specific improvements that graduate students can now bargain over, including dental coverage, reduced charges for adding dependents onto health insurance plans, more control over insurance plans, stipend increases, and a compensation plan for cancelled TA assignments. Raheja also hopes that the bargaining committee considers a reduced subway pass. The high rent in Manhattan means that many NYU students live in Brooklyn or other parts of the city far from their Greenwich Village campus, making twice daily subway trips necessary. “Union recognition after a long eight years is energizing and secures a collective forum for graduate students across departments,” says Raheja. A union contract will hopefully be completed by the end of the spring semester.

While graduate student employees like Raheja are likely looking forward to working conditions and benefits that make it a bit easier to stay afloat in the most expensive city in the United States, the impact of this decision could be more widespread. With any luck, other private universities will follow and give their graduate employees more power and the ability to bargain with their employers. This could help hard-working graduate students focus more of their time stressing about their theses, instead of how they are going to pay the rent.

Image: Hannah Griffin