To be a graduate student is to live in a very strange limbo. It is to live in a hazy zone in between student and professional. It is to exist, financially speaking and no matter your age, as something in between youth and adult. Your paid work is part time, while your study is full time, and crises arising from the collisions between the two are common. The privations dictated by graduate assistant stipends sometimes domino into the sorts of problems that (hopefully) disappear once we are (hopefully) no longer underemployed.
During my own years of graduate study, the vulnerability of my financially precarious status seemed to expose itself, almost every semester, in some unlikely manner of legal trouble. Perhaps this says more about me as an individual than it does about graduate study in general, but bear with me for a moment here. My point still holds, and it is this: it’s likely that at some point in your graduate career you will have to stick up for yourself in a financial or legal matter, and while it may be a hassle, you can save a lot of money by making use of readily available resources and advocating for your own position.
My oddball legal encounters started just as I began my graduate studies. I had left a job in the federal government to attend graduate school, and around the time I reported to my program for orientation, I began receiving aggressively worded collection letters from my former employing agency, claiming that I had been overpaid when I separated from service, and demanding that I remit the alleged extra cash immediately, or else.
After hours of phone calls and several exchanges of letters attempting to clear up the problem, and lacking any other options, I paid my first visit to my university’s student legal services office. They cheerfully advised me about how to formulate a cease-and-desist letter, how to ask for verification of the government’s claim, and how to assure that the claimant couldn’t blight my credit record during the dispute.
Not too long after those troubles began, I parked my car outside a local tavern to socialize with some fellow graduate students. While I was inside, my car was towed. I was apoplectic, for I had parked in a legal space. I jumped in a cab and literally followed the tail lights of the tow truck to an impound lot outside of town, where I had to pay almost $300 to retrieve my vehicle. Thus started my second visit to student legal services.
The same kindly advocate who had helped to write my letter to the federal government listened, amused, to the story of my most recent situation. He had heard of such predatory towing practices from students many times before. He explained how to file a claim against the towing company, which court I would have to go to, and then photocopied for me several pages of Texas statutes regulating towing practices. He assured me that a presentation of the facts, citing specific code violations by the towing company, would impress the judge and very likely result in a favorable judgment.
So armed, I prepared for court. My graduate school poverty seemed frequently to compel me to stand on principle — I simply couldn’t afford to concede hundreds of dollars to my former employer or to a predatory towing company, even if I also didn’t have the time to fight prolonged battles with either. In the courthouse waiting room, the harried attorney representing the towing company and I settled for about 90 percent of what I was asking for — a win for me by any measure.
Later, the same helpful folks in student legal services, who I think maybe came to expect a visit from me each semester, gave me some critically important advice about title insurance as I undertook a somewhat creative real estate transaction. I feel I really got my money’s worth out of my student fees.
But, if you find yourself in a dispute with your university (and let’s hope you never do), don’t go to student legal services. They’re forbidden from helping you in any claim or action against your own university, which is, obviously, their own employer. Unfortunately, there are those rare and serious cases where a student or employee is compelled to engage their university in legal action. But it is an option of last resort, a nuclear option. No matter how righteous your claim, even winning can amount to losing.
My purpose is offering this warning is not to shield large institutions, but to highlight the personal toll that even a winning legal engagement with a university could take upon the mind, soul, and finances of an individual. Going to court does not mean the same thing for a large institution that it does for an individual. While you are deeply personally invested, the institution is not. While you will gamble in court with your own money, betting, by hiring your own counsel, on the righteousness of your position, the university will be betting and playing with house money, so to speak.
It is profoundly unfortunate that sometimes universities, which are supposed to be some of our most enlightened institutions, sometimes step on the rights of students and employees. But if you find yourself in such a situation, follow the chain of command. Make your complaint to your supervisor, your department chair, then maybe a dean, and so on. Never go straight to the top. If your university has an office of ombudsman, that’s a great resource for resolving disputes without escalation. Every university should have one, but not all do. Unlike the relatively petty examples that I cite here from my own life, engaging a university in a legal forum is gravely serious, and should not be undertaken lightly.
Fortunately, a graduate student is more likely to encounter the sorts of petty nuisances that I did than to have a serious conflict with their university. Take housing, for example.
Grad students are often compelled by their finances to live in less than ideal housing, and sometimes the companies that cater to low-cost renters will try to run roughshod over their tenants. When I was living at exactly this sort of massive, low-cost, corporately managed apartment complex, the local manager suddenly began threatening to tow a van that I owned and parked at the complex.
When I asked the apartment manager why she was threatening to tow my operable, registered, insured vehicle, which was specifically listed on my lease, she answered simply that it was "unsightly." But my lease, I knew, made no mention one way or the other of vehicular aesthetic qualities.
I admit: the van was unsightly.
I bought it from a friend in Virginia after a tree crushed the roof in hurricane Isabel. It was baby blue and pocked with rust, and when I paid my friend $200 for it and the salvage title he said, “Just jack up the roof with a 2 x 4 and it’ll pop right back up.” He was right, and the roof only had a little bit of a wave in it. When I told him I was going to use the van to move to Texas he said, “If it makes it, you owe me 50 more bucks.” And, once I figured how to start it by jamming the choke in the carburetor open with a screwdriver, the van and I made it to Texas. Once in Texas, I had painted a slogan of support for fringe gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman on the van with neon pink spray paint, as well as some flames for good measure.
I wasn’t going to be bullied into getting rid of a fully functional, even if slightly scary-looking, van.
This time, I found my solution outside the traditional legal system. Since the apartment managers were obviously willing to violate the terms of my lease, our binding contract, I decided to settle the van dispute with a game of chicken. I posted an ad on Craigslist soliciting artists to paint "tasteful nudes" all over the van, for which artistic expression I would pay in handles of liquor. I printed off the ad, highlighted relevant sections about operable, insured vehicles in a photocopy of my lease (which of course made no mention of “unsightliness”), and delivered both to the apartment complex manager. Within 48 hours I had a signed letter affirming that the management company would not molest my van, and some of Austin’s most alternative artists missed out on the chance to paint on a large, rolling sheet metal canvas.
Perhaps predictably, when I moved out of the apartment complex the manager took one last crack at me, holding onto my security deposit, claiming all sorts of nonexistent damages to the apartment, and sending a collection agency after me before even notifying me of the claims. But a strongly worded letter to both the apartment management company and the collection agency citing their violations of both the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Texas Property Code, and those problems went right away.
About five years after my former government employer had begun trying to collect "overpaid" wages from me, that problem finally got cleared up too. I had to write letters to four senators, and even though I don’t agree with all of the policy positions he took, Senator John Warner (now retired) is a stand-up guy in my book.
Stick up for yourself. Fight for your rights.