Graduate Students fight for Healthcare at Villanova University

By Harrison Farina, Montgomery County Healthcare Rights Committee

The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a flame of graduate student-organizing at Villanova University, where I study and teach. Villanova conveniently classifies us as students, even though we do enormous amounts of labor for the university in the form of: teaching, reading, publishing, presenting, and promoting the school’s image. During our studies, we are subject to an extremely intense professionalization process in which we are said to be “branded” by Villanova. How, though, can they brand us without offering us neither basic human needs nor protection?

I believe they call us students because they want to silence our discontent with unsafe working conditions. We are not offered healthcare, and many of us are under- or uninsured. For years, we have been pleading with the school to provide healthcare to graduate student employees. Amid COVID-19, it became clear that Villanova’s Catholic values are just a veneer to cover what they really care about: making money.

The university took only one measure to address our COVID-19 concerns: they gave us the opportunity to apply for $1000 available through CARES Act funding. At the same time, they discouraged students from applying for this aid money. The fund required us to prove our hardship and the application was dehumanizing, making us prove our suffering.

This fight has taught me a lot about how power holders and decision makers tend to act when called upon to help those in need. The process of getting CARES funds signaled to me that this “aid” was just a way for the school to confuse us, appease us, and slow us down in our attempts to organize around healthcare. Instead, graduate students established our own summer support fund. Using my knowledge of Projects of Survival, I helped implement a “Summer Survival Fund,” which was a quick payout system to get support for medical, housing, food, or any other emergency expenses. The fund both addressed our material needs and was a way to build organizational power and collectivity; it was a testament to the success of the organization of the poor.

Now, Villanova has decided to reopen its campus for fall classes. While I can work from home this academic year, most of my peers are not so lucky. They are forced to go back to teach classes on campus. If I had to return to campus, I would constantly be afraid of getting sick. I would feel uncomfortable visiting any family or going to any organizing events, because I would be afraid of spreading the virus. If I were forced into this situation, as so many are, I don’t know what my life would be like.

To me, the wave of school reopenings is genocidal, because millions of children and essential workers are being forced to march to their deaths. Children could have life-long complications from COVID-19, both physical and psychological. Children are unique, because they will be affected by this for much longer, but they do not compose the majority of the enormous and rising death toll in this country. Not only children, but Black people, Latinx people, essential workers, homeless people, and the elderly are being killed by this system in huge numbers. For the sake of them and all of us, we need to replace this cruel and evil economic system with a system that supports human life. We must be ready to paint the portrait of a world governed by life, not profit.

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