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From the community: Let grad student RAs buy grad student meal plans

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After struggling to find enough Resident Assistants to staff undergraduate dorms, Stanford opened the position to coterminal students this year. We are some of the many coterm RAs who are the beneficiaries of this policy change and we are delighted we get to create the welcoming communities we once enjoyed as frosh. As the quarter begins, we are energized by our daily interactions with residents. Their vibrance and optimism offer keen reminders of the reasons we loved our undergraduate years: deep conversations with people of differing backgrounds, late-night adventures to new parts of campus and the feeling that Stanford has your back, no matter what happens outside the bubble. 

Unfortunately, it no longer feels this way. Through a hurtful but fixable policy, Stanford is putting coterms in a financial squeeze: R&DE is requiring us to purchase an undergraduate meal plan when the cost of a comparable graduate meal plan is about $1200 cheaper.

Traditionally, meal plans are determined by residence. All students living in undergraduate dorms enroll in the undergraduate meal plan; all students in graduate dorms can buy a graduate meal plan or opt out altogether. We don’t understand why undergraduate students have to pay $1200 more for a near-identical meal plan, but we do understand that, in practice, this policy has not hurt most students. Because undergraduate students are eligible for financial aid, those who cannot pay the full cost of the $6693 meal plan can receive funds to cover it. Graduate students, meanwhile, are not eligible for financial aid, but they can save money through the cheaper meal plan, or opt out and cook for themselves in apartments outfitted with kitchens.

Yet the logic of the housing-based meal plan falls apart in the case of the grad student living in undergrad housing. Indeed, it places an undue financial burden on coterm RAs staffing undergraduate dorms. We are treated as graduate students with respect to tuition, but we must pay full undergraduate housing and dining fees — and we are no longer eligible for financial aid. To compensate for the additional $1200 we are paying, many of us are juggling multiple part-time jobs. Coterm RAs are getting the short end of the stick: no financial aid, higher meal plan fees. 

We spoke with a manager of Stanford Dining who said this policy was enacted for the sake of consistency and also to ensure that RAs eat with their residents. We sympathize with these motives. As leaders of our dorm communities, we understand the importance of treating all residents in a consistent manner. We get that it’s a pain to change a policy, especially when that policy affects a minority of the population. And we see eating with our residents as a crucial part of our job.

Yet the impact of the meal plan policy is quite harmful, and the “consistency” argument collapses under scrutiny. Purchasing a graduate meal plan does not preclude us from eating with our residents. In fact, it would give us more time to do so by freeing up time spent on other jobs. As we learned in RA training, it’s always important to tease apart the “intent” versus “impact” of the situation, especially when power dynamics are involved. The intention of the meal policy may be sound, but the impact is stressing our already-thin budgets. 

The $1200 difference in meal plans would perhaps be less noticeable had Stanford not also reduced RA pay and increased the cost of housing this year. For the 2021-2022 academic year, Stanford reduced RA pay by $925, while increasing the cost of Housing by $591. Our room and board costs $7,133 more than our stipend as RAs. As a result, we are essentially paying to work. A collective of students is currently striking to fight for a common-sense pay raise. In the meantime, we propose a simple solution that would not require a budget overhaul:

Allow coterm RAs to purchase a graduate meal plan.

We have been offered loans to cover the cost of dining. We believe it’s unreasonable to incur debt when the solution is as simple as an OK from a Stanford administrator. Over 170 students and alumni support this policy change.  

We believe our unique situation warrants reassessing the meal plan policy so that coterms living in undergraduate dorms are not forced into unnecessary financial distress. Consistency is convenient for bureaucracy, but it is causing real pain for grad students. 

As coterm RAs, we bring to our role our unique perspectives informed by four years of navigating Stanford’s quirks, joys and challenges. We believe our knowledge and experiences make us invaluable resources for our residents as they begin their Stanford journeys in person. And yet because our current salary does not cover the cost of the undergraduate meal plan, many of us are having to choose between spending time with residents and clocking hours with one of our other part-time jobs.

Stanford, please let your coterm RAs opt into the graduate meal plan. 

To voice your support for this policy change, please sign the petition here.

Signed,

Shiriel King Abramson B.A. ’20 M.A. ‘22

Will Gutzman B.A. ’20 M.A. ‘22

Hannah Howell B.A. ’20 M.A. ’22

Eunice Jung B.A. ’21 M.S. ’22

Erica Olsen B.S. ’21 M.S. ’22

Thea Rosenberg B.S. ’21 M.S. ’22

Georgia Gabriela Sampaio B.S. ’20 M.S. ’22

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