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Grad students walk out in protest of GOP tax bill

Courtesy Rocky Baier

Geoscience graduate students Lisa Jose, left, and Haiyang Kehoe hold a sign that says “tuition is not income” during the graduate student walkout and rally on Nov. 29. “If we’re taxed more, I’m probably going to have to leave grad school,” Jose said. 

In response to the Republican House tax plan, a group of graduate students gathered in front of Old Main  to protest, joining thousands of grad students across the country who participated in walkouts and rallies on Wednesday, Nov 29.

In the tax plan, graduate student tuition waivers would be taxed as income. For graduate students, many who live at or below the poverty line, adding on taxes could force them to drop out of school or not consider graduate school as an option at all.

“It’s going to make graduate school inaccessible to the majority of people,” said anthropology graduate student Cari Tusing, one of the people who organized the walkout. “Only those who can take on debt or those who are independently wealthy will be able to attend graduate school.”

Tusing is part of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, a group of graduate students that work in conjunction with the Graduate and Professional Student Council to plan advocacy events for graduate student issues. 

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“I make approaching $20,000 a year,” Tusing said. “This is going to add several thousand dollars of taxes on us, it’s going to make it impossible to work here. We already barely make enough to make ends meet.”

As a large research university, the University of Arizona relies on graduate students to run classes, help teachers and perform research. This tax could impact how the university functions.

“I think the tax plan is terrible for all universities,” Dean of Students Kendal Washington White said. “We rely on graduate and teaching assistants and research assistants to get stuff done on campus. They contribute so much to the institution and to tax their stipend … The stipends are already not where they should be.” 

Anthropology graduate student Sarah Renkert agrees with White. 

“Without graduate students this place just becomes dysfunctional,” Renkert said.

During the protest, students shared their thoughts, held signs, chanted things like “Grad Tax Walkout: Save Grad Ed” and marched in a circle. However, that changed when Deanna Lewis, Internship Coordinator Graduate Assistant for LGBTQ Affairs, jumped into the middle of the circle and suggested everyone file into Old Main and sign in, documenting every single student who was at the protest.

“When we start thinking about the implications of the grad tax on us, it really would affect us significantly and I think overall it would diminish the mission of the University of Arizona,” Lewis said. “It’s in our president’s (Robbins) best interest to make sure that basically he has our back so that we can continue to contribute to the university and make the University of Arizona one of the best places to be.” 

On the University’s end, people like Michael Sistak, Senior Director of Federal Affairs and National Advocacy, directly advocated for students by talking to politicians.

“We met with most of our congressional offices to articulate the universities position,” Sistak said. “A lot of the things that Congress is looking to tax, you’re taking away from students when you do that.”

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Partner organizations such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Association of American Universities, and the American Council on Education said “they were going around meeting with members of Congress and their staff members are always very surprised that when they tax that they are taking away from scholarships,” Sistak continued. 

Sistak and his team have already sent around 1600 emails to Arizona representatives, sent a letter signed by President Robbins and began a grassroots email campaign to send emails to Congress. 

Currently, separate versions of the tax bill passed in both the House and the Senate, and it is now going through a conference committee to work out the differences between the two. The graduate tax will be law if that part of the bill is kept in the conference committee’s version of tax reform. 

“I shouldn’t be punished for just trying to learn more about the world, about life,” atmospheric sciences graduate Malori Redman said. 

Follow Rocky Baier on Twitter

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