The student who slept on rooftops

May 13, 2019, 2:11 a.m.

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The Daily is interested in hearing about graduate students’ experiences with affordability at Stanford. If you’d like to share your story, please contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’

The story of John, a second-year international engineering student, illustrates a worst-case scenario of the squeeze some graduate students face. For just over two months, John was homeless. He stayed on campus and continued his research, but he slept in his office, on grass or on campus rooftops.

With minimal savings and significant credit card debt, John was already pressed when he learned he would receive no funding during the summer. He realized he would not be able to afford housing rates, on or off campus.

“It was very scary in the beginning,” he said. “I was quite scared.”

At Stanford, in contrast to some other universities, some graduate students are admitted without guaranteed funding plans for fewer than five years. Princeton provides guaranteed funding to Ph.D. candidates throughout their enrollment. Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences guarantees five years of funding to all Ph.D. students. But funding packages at Stanford vary by school and department. While the Graduate School of Education offers five years of guaranteed funding, some engineering school departments provide as little as two years.

John says he wished he could have done extra work to earn extra income, but was restricted by his F-1 visa. A star researcher with several awards and a laundry list of publications already, John has considered withdrawing from his degree more than 10 times — but stayed because of his commitment to putting himself on a path to success in either industry or academia. Showering at gyms and eating in campus dining halls, he says he staved off food insecurity by “strategizing,” eating filling, high-calorie foods.

“I was working,” he said. “The challenge was that I had to maintain good health so that I can work and I can produce results.”

With no way of storing his belongings, and too overloaded with financial and personal stress to figure out selling them, he gave most of his possessions away, except for a small portion he kept in his office. He chose to cover the expenses of his girlfriend — who, unemployed, relied on his financial support — over his own housing costs.

“I wanted to make sure she doesn’t experience what I’m experiencing,” he said.

John, who was granted anonymity because he feared retaliation from the University and judgment by his peers, said his situation was compounded by the fact that his department did not reimburse him for an expensive laptop he needed for his research, nor for travel costs to a conference where he presented his work.

He saw homelessness coming at him head-on. But even knowing it was coming, John says his upbringing and a stifling campus environment where students are expected to never falter kept from him seeking help. Sometimes, he said, he thought the problem was himself.

“I was strategizing what I should do, whether I should ask for help.” he said. “And eventually I decided I’m not going to ask for help — I’m just going to deal with it.”

The experience, he said, brought mental health issues and wreaked havoc on his sleep schedule.  

“Toward the end I was concerned for myself and whether the depression caused by that situation will put me in a dangerous situation,” he wrote in an email to The Daily after his interview, when he had said that he considered seeing a psychiatrist at Vaden Health Center, but gave up due to wait times of multiple weeks.

With an irregular schedule that sometimes involved only naps in the middle of afternoon, John often slept for a handful of hours or not at all. Some days he was so exhausted he couldn’t even remember if he had slept.

“Whenever I felt like I can’t continue anymore,” he said. “I would have guessed maybe it’s because I feel sleepy.”

John emphasized that the lack of housing itself — “just the mere fact of not having a home” — wasn’t the biggest concern. The worst part of his experience, he says, was feelings of intense isolation.

“After that experience I’m sort of pessimistic toward people,” he said. “I used to be more optimistic about people and communities and the way they help each other.”

In one of the wealthiest cities in America, he said, students with severe affordability concerns feel like they don’t belong.

“The biggest issue — and that’s something that relates to any affordability issue — is that people who have these challenges feel like they’re alone, feel like they’re the only ones,” he said.

And yet, he says, he knows now that he wasn’t the only one — that he knows of at least five other students who have experienced homelessness or severe affordability crises.

John works in graduate student community-building for a campus partner, an umbrella group under the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduation Organization that includes ethnic- and discipline-focused organizations. He says he repeatedly hears concerns from students about affordability, often from international students. One student, he said, recently asked for advice about living in their car.

“Sometimes they indirectly tell me, ‘I’m asking this for my friends,’ while I pretty much know they’re just asking for themselves,” he said. “They ask for tips, or how can they survive on a given budget, where should they buy food.”

“A big portion of us is dealing with same challenges,” John said later. “The stories I hear are not unique. I feel like a lot of people would have similar stories to what I have.”

John says affordability concerns come up in conversations with close friends, but that many students are reluctant to discuss their financial problems. In all, he says, students are reluctant to come forward because of fears of losing status.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said. “If you’re into academia, the way you present yourself matters.”

Existing academic structures, he added, are not suited to social support of students. Asking for support with their financial circumstances, he said, can damage a student’s a reputation, even with department personnel or advisors who should provide support.

John called on the University to provide more comprehensive support for its graduate students. As a research institution built on the output of its scholars, he said, Stanford should do a better job taking care of researchers.

“There’s no one looking into all these scenarios or just checking with people to see whether they’re doing okay,” he said. “No one is checking in with you to see whether you are doing okay or whether you have the bare minimum to survive.”

Maybe, he said, departments should implement have more staff with student-oversight roles. While John said described his advisor as supportive and a first-rate mentor who would have tried to help if John had told him of his circumstances, John said he wasn’t comfortable approaching them. Students might be more willing to discuss severe financial issues with more dedicated student-support staff, he said.

In their statement to The Daily, Cooper, Gumport and Miranda wrote that students’ departments should “communicate clearly and well in advance about the availability of summer funding so that students can plan for alternatives,” and wrote students enrolled half-time or more could use loans to help with expenses. The Affordability Task Force, they added, is scheduled to present “data-informed recommendations” to the president, provost and trustees in December, addressing the “four key affordability areas” of housing, transportation, child and family care and graduate funding.

“Extensive graduate student input has been received through several means,” they added, “including surveys, focus groups and community town halls, as well as the Student Family Working Advisory Group.”

While John is no longer homeless, finances remain tight. He now lives in the cheapest on-campus housing option available, which he estimates costs 40 to 50 percent of his after-tax income. He receives only a partial subsidy of the University’s Cardinal Care, leaving him to shoulder the remaining roughly $2,500 annually.

“You could easily spend the rest on food and other stuff,” he said. “Like if you were to just have a normal life.”

Every quarter, enrollment holds are placed on his account because he can’t yet afford to pay last quarter’s bill, which is then subject to a late fee. John says he sometimes wishes he attended one of Stanford’s peer schools — from which he turned down an admission offer involving comparable funding and fully covered healthcare, without regard for Stanford’s far higher costs of living. His regret stems not from the research opportunities available, “but because of support and peace of mind and having a normal life.”

When he accepted his admission to Stanford, he said, he had no concept of the financial difficulties he would face.

“I’m actually happy that I didn’t know about this — because I love being a part of Stanford,” he said. “If I had known, I would have made a different decision, for sure.”

This article was corrected to reflect that a contrast between Stanford and some other universities lies in that some graduate students at Stanford are admitted without funding for less than five years, not that they are admitted without funding for their entire Ph.D. program.

The Daily is interested in hearing about graduate students’ experiences with affordability at Stanford. If you’d like to share your story, please contact us.

Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’

Charlie Curnin '22 is the editor-in-chief of The Stanford Daily. Contact him at eic 'at'

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