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Graduate students seek policy change

Megan Doyle | Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Graduate student families are suffering from a lack of adequate health care and need the University to rethink its policies to better encourage community around women who are considering or engaged in family life, graduate theology student Ricky Klee said.

Graduate students, their spouses, and many of their young children gathered around the Main Building Monday to demonstrate and petition the University to create for family-friendly policies for the graduate student community.

“We are not where we want to be in our support of graduate students,” Graduate School dean Greg Sterling said. “But we are working to get there.”
The petition states: “With substantial resources and a commitment as a Catholic university to recognize and support the inherent dignity of all human life Notre Dame must provide a comparable degree of support for student families.”
According to Klee, the health care plan offered to students is unaffordable with the stipend provided. 
Graduate theology student Kevin Haley said that while his plan as a student is reasonable and affordable, his wife Danielle  has gone uninsured because of the shortcomings in the state health care plan that his family has chosen for her and their children in lieu of paying for the University’s option.
“For a University that so values Catholic ideology, it is a problem for families, for spouses and for children that we are unable to find health care through the school,” Danielle said. 
The stipend provided for graduate students is not compatible with the health care plan offered by the University, Haley said.
A 2008 review cited in the petition noted that the stipend levels at Notre Dame were relatively low, and graduate students then recommended that the program more consistently evaluate these levels and their suitability for the needs of these families.
In response to the petition, Sterling said the graduate school has increased standard stipends for all incoming and continuing students in addition to lowering the cost of insurance for students by 58 percent from 2008-09 to 2010-11.
“The University has incrementally improved student health care,” Klee said. “But nothing has been done for students’ spouses and children.”
Sterling said the greatest challenge for change is cost. An endowment of $70 million would be required to cover 75 percent of the health care costs for graduate student spouses and children, he said.
“For us to provide the same health insurance subsidy for spouses and children that we provide for students would be expensive,” Sterling said.
Julia Wickes has given birth to two daughters in the five years she has spent in South Bend while her husband pursues his graduate studies at Notre Dame.
“Sometimes it feels as if we are totally forgotten,” she said. “We feel that we are not even on the radar of the people making plans.”
The graduate students who signed the petition and participated in the demonstration hope to see more affordable health care for dependents, Wickes said, but other issues related to the graduate family community need to be addressed as well.
“The graduate family housing is removed from campus and separated from the improvements that we see when new buildings go up,” Wickes said. “For me, this is another symbol of how we feel overlooked.”
International students said they feel the strain of the University’s health care option as well. 
Graduate student Andrew Klein, who is originally from Canada, and his wife Erica paid for the offered plan because she is ineligible for any government services offered by the United States.
“We were a bit naïve when we came here,” Erica Klein said. “We understood that we would have this extra cost, but we were not really prepared.”
The Klein’s daughter Brynja is an American citizen and covered by state health care.
“I do not want my child to be on social services,” Andrew said. “We want to pay for her care.”
Additional concerns addressed in the petition mention the inadequate maternal and paternal leave.
Notre Dame’s policy does not allow any opportunity for paternal leave. Klee said the maternal leave offered is substandard.
The petition states: “Notre Dame should match the leaders among [Association of American Universities] institutions and enhance maternity leave, enact paternity leave and provide a part-time enrollment option with partial benefits and access to health insurance.”
The petition cites several universities, including Dayton, Princeton and the Catholic University of America, that provide more family-friendly policies for their graduate students. 
The petition also suggests Notre Dame build a family gathering space on campus, create more nursing rooms, expand graduate student child care and provide more organized resources for graduate student families.
“The petition has received over 300 signatures,” Klee said. “And we are receiving more support every day.”
Sterling said his office agrees with the students and their families on the need for increased support, and he is working to make decisions that will create a meaningful and positive impact.
“I appreciate the spirit behind the petition and look forward to working with students and student representatives as we build our community,” Sterling said.