Samaritan Saturday: Graduate student advocating for Graduate Assistant protections amid pandemic

By Sara Wangler, Staff Reporter

This Saturday’s Samaritan of the week is Anna Wilcoxen, who advocated for the rights and protection of Graduate Assistants at SIU during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Wilcoxen is a 5th year Ph.D. student in communication studies and president of Graduate Assistants United. 

“The GAU is a labor union that represents all graduate assistants that work for SIU, we deal with collective bargaining to ensure rights like payroll, medical leave, and dangerous working conditions on campus,” Wilcoxen said. 

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Wilcoxen said that a graduate assistant role at SIU varies. 

“Many undergraduate student general classes are taught by graduate assistants, some lead lab research or work in housing,” Wilcoxen said.

Wilcoxen said at the beginning of the pandemic, they and the GAU worked to maintain safety across the board. 

“We wanted to make sure no one would be penalized for trauma, a lot of change happened at one time,” Wilcoxen said. “I worked really closely with the administration over the summer to make sure the university provided protective gear of every kind.” 

A change in the way SIU operates signals the need for change in the contracts of graduate assistants, Wilcoxen said. 

“Essentially what we did over the summer and into the fall was adding material to grad student contracts regarding COVID to allow them a choice based on if they felt comfortable teaching in person,” Wilcoxen said.

As online classes became more practical for the fall 2020 semester, Wilcoxen said they wanted to give teachers options. 

“We wanted to make sure teachers with underlying health conditions or those who didn’t feel comfortable teaching in person, weren’t required to teach face to face,” Wilcoxen said.

Over the summer, Wilcoxen got as many suggestions and feedback as possible to meet the needs of soon to be teachers. 

“I conducted a survey through the school, as well as my own survey to see what grad assistants wanted and or needed out of the school year,” Wilcoxen said. “Grad assistants by and large said they wanted to teach online, although some did want to teach in person.” 

Wilcoxen said at the end of the day it’s about protecting people. 

“We wanted to meet the desires of teachers who wanted to teach in a classroom atmosphere, all while keeping balance,” Wilcoxen said. 

Wilcoxen said in previous years, GAU has hosted mixers to connect graduate students and inform them on what GAU does. 

“This year we didn’t do any in-person events for obvious safety reasons, so we started a campaign to say if you’re a GAU member you can get a free mask,” Wilcoxen said “So we worked with Silkworm, and mailed custom masks to members.” 

Wilcoxen also handled issues with international students in the GAU program. 

“There were concerns regarding international grad assistants being able to stay if they weren’t teaching in person, in response I created a COVID response task force,Wilcoxen said. “That looked at and handled problems international students had.” 

While taking care of all of these issues Wilcoxen is also completing work on their doctoral dissertation. 

“My dissertation I’m working on involves precarious workers within the academy and outside of the academy, I look at people who work in the service industry to those working in higher education,” Wilcoxen said. 

Staff reporter Sara Wangler can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @sara_Wangler.

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