Opinion guest column

The invisible families of MIT

When graduate students’ families aren’t counted and don‘t count

When I was a graduate student at MIT nine years ago, the MIT student ID opened doors, literally and figuratively. I could ask to visit a lab, or chat with faculty beyond my department.

In 2015, I returned to Cambridge as the spouse of a graduate student. I found that while graduate students at MIT are well-supported with the opportunities and resources they need to succeed, the families of MIT graduate students are invisible. 

Just how invisible? The number of graduate students who are married or partnered, or who become married during their tenure here, is not even known. But roughly 400 MIT graduate student families live on campus. At least 10 percent of MIT graduate students have children, based on past Graduate Student Council surveys.

Spouses and families support MIT graduate students on their journey towards a Ph.D. Spouses help hold the family together amid long hours in the lab, conferences away, and weeks in the field.

Yet to MIT as an institution, we do not exist. We are ghosts, hardly counted, with no data on us in one place.

MIT Medical treats many spouses and families, but not all. MIT Housing counts only families who live on campus. Spouses do not have access to transit benefits, MIT student discounts for on-campus dining, or the growing network of makerspaces. Unless they are accompanied by their spouse, or are alumni or staff, spouses don’t even get free personal entry to the MIT Museum. 

When I returned to Cambridge after years away, despite all my advantages — a green card, access to the MIT alumni network, social networks in Boston, and full command of the English language — I still struggled with isolation and the hunt for a new job in my field.

Imagine the experience of someone who uproots her career to move across the country, or halfway across the world where they are ineligible to work, for a spouse who is a graduate student. MIT Spouses & Partners and the International Students Office do what they can, but their resources are limited. 

The picture becomes more complex when children are added. Male graduate students don’t get paid paternity leave, as though they are not equal partners in their children’s development. Graduate students do not receive the childcare assistance offered to MIT staff, postdocs, and faculty. The sticker price of infant care at the on-campus Technology Childcare Centers is $31,524 per year. Graduate students pay full price. A staff member earning the same would pay roughly $8,511 a year.

As a spouse, I’m one of the lucky ones. I am legally eligible to work in the US, and have a job that both fits my career path and pays enough for us to afford childcare. We have a healthy child who doesn’t require special care or expenses. And yet daycare, in which we were lucky to even get a spot, eats up half my take-home pay, and we won't be able to have a much-wanted second child until we are more financially stable. 

But I’m lucky, and so I want to speak up for others who are not.

Just because a spouse cannot legally work or chooses not to work doesn’t mean a family will never require affordable regular childcare. What happens to families when a parent or child has a medical emergency with a months-long hospital stay? Or families where a child needs early intervention, physical therapy, or other support for a disability?

Just because graduate spouses and children do not exist to MIT doesn’t mean they should not be protected. What about international couples where one spouse’s visa is dependent on the other’s, who run into relationship difficulties? What about single parents raising children on their own?

Graduate student families know we have it better than many others in Cambridge, Boston, and beyond. Being a graduate student is temporary, a stepping-stone on the way to other things. And MIT graduate students and their spouses are all adults who make their own choices about what is best for their families and careers in the short and long term. But no matter how temporary, a hardship is still a hardship. The problem isn't new, either. Year in and year out, different families encounter the same challenges; yet nothing has changed. 

Dr. Amy Glasmeier of MIT’s own Department of Urban Studies and Planning has calculated what a living wage looks like in the state of Massachusetts. To support a family of two adults, with one working, the required annual income before taxes is $39,289. A family of two adults and one child, with one adult working, needs $48,012. The typical Ph.D. stipend is $35,700.

In September 2016, MIT’s endowment funds totaled $13.2 billion, and the MIT Investment Management Company had $20.8 billion of funds under management. One of the pillars of MIT’s current $5 billion Campaign for a Better World is to strengthen the MIT core — to make sure every student who has earned admission can enroll, regardless of family circumstances.

Meanwhile, where I live on campus, at the Westgate dorm alone, I hear of neighbors dependent on food stamps. More than two-thirds of our 105 children are aged five and under. Those in kindergarten and beyond qualify for free school lunches and rely on Cambridge food banks. 

It would be a shame if MIT’s graduate students and their families, supported by one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, had to be a drain on the taxpayers of Massachusetts and the United States or go hungry.

But that is the cost of being invisible.

Grace Chua graduated from the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing in 2008.