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COVID-19 has Financial and Academic Impact on Grad Students


In the wake of the coronavirus, our education systems are in the process of re-inventing themselves for distance learning, but for some international graduate students that distance presents problems.

At most universities, it’s graduate students who conduct most of the research projects under the direction of their supervisors.

“It’s students who are in the laboratories. They're in the fields. You can imagine if there's research being done; graduate students are likely going to be on the projects."

Ryan King is working on his PhD in translational biology, medicine, and health at Virginia Tech. In his spare time, he represents some 7,000 grad students, from all of Tech’s campuses, to the university’s Board of Visitors. King says, “Right now we’re most worried about the coronavirus” and how it will affect grad students who depend on their research work for income while they’re in school.

Last week the board announced it will discontinue many research projects on campus, except vital coronavirus related studies and some others, with the mandate that students follow the new safe distancing rules that everyone knows by now. But grad students depend on paid graduate assistantships for their income while they’re working on their advanced degrees.

“And for the students who are not supported on assistantship, typically they either go back home, or they get some kind of other job. And there's a lot of worry particularly in our international student population, as to whether or not going back home is a viable option based on travel restrictions that currently exist and may still exist, come May.”

King is working with the administration at Tech to plan ahead for an uncertain future for his constituency.  

“And I think it's important to note that at Virginia Tech three of the top four countries from where we receive international graduate students are: China, South Korea in Iran. And I know all three countries have had a tough time with COVID-19.

Grad students are,of course a bit older than most college students and many have families.

“And in many cases, our partners are losing their jobs right now. And so, you're essentially taking two income households and you're cutting them back to one income, which is a graduate assistantship. And that that's not enough money, really, to maintain a family.”

The graduate assistantship helps grad students survive through years of research before they begin their professional careers. And even before the bottom fell out for them, grad students at Virginia Tech were already struggling with food insecurity, according to a study done last year by Virginia Tech’s Dr. Ralph Hall, and his students.

Last fall 2 grad students started a “Go Fund Me” campaign to help VT Students who don’t have enough to eat. So far, it’s raised $20,000.

“And so, before the COVID-19 pandemic started, we had a lot of conversations about how to address food security issues at Virginia Tech.” says King. 

 ***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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