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Three graduate students report being forced out of programs

Students denied unpaid leave, placed under inactive status, faced dissertation cancellation

<p>Clew GS requested unpaid family leave to care for their sister, but had the request denied as the policy only covers a &quot;spouse, domestic partner, child or parent.&quot;</p>

Clew GS requested unpaid family leave to care for their sister, but had the request denied as the policy only covers a "spouse, domestic partner, child or parent."

The Graduate Labor Organization claimed that the University was forcing three graduate students out of their programs in an Aug. 31 Instagram post and petition

In their post, GLO reported the graduate students were denied unpaid leave, placed under inactive status and had their dissertation canceled. 

One of the three graduate students regained student status Sept. 20, GLO wrote in an email to The Herald. GLO announced a Sept. 28 rally in support of the other two students on Sept. 19.

The Herald spoke to Jeremiah Zablon GS, who regained his status, and students Clew GS and Karina Santamaria GS — who are still facing removal from their programs — about the institutional barriers they faced during their graduate study.

Multiple University administrators declined to comment about communications with the three students in accordance with federal law, which prohibits disclosure of students’ academic or financial circumstances, University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald.  

Jeremiah Zablon GS

Zablon, a master’s student at the School of Public Health, planned to begin his second year of the program this fall. 

Due to an economic crisis in his home country Kenya, he was unable to pay his tuition, according to his GoFundMe page. As an international student, Zablon said he did not have access to internal loans from the Office of Financial Aid to pay his tuition, which totaled nearly $30,000.

After failing to pay his spring 2022 tuition balance, the University placed Zablon under inactive status over the summer, he said. 

Zablon said he considered taking academic leave, but this process would threaten his student visa. He also considered transferring to a master of public health program at another university, but he could not get letters of recommendation or documentation from the University because of his past due balances.

“I feel like I have not been supported,” he said. “I’ve sacrificed so much to come to Brown. It took me five years to save what I used (for tuition) in the past semester.” 

Zablon, who worked in health care before coming to Brown, said he wanted to pursue a master’s to help alleviate the public health issues he witnessed in Kenya. “Having a degree with Brown … can help me write grants (and) do research, which can make a difference in (my) community,” he said.

After GLO’s Instagram post publicized Zablon’s status, Brown students and peers raised $6,220 from 120 donors through GoFundMe as of Tuesday evening. Zablon said he was able to use the funds from the fundraiser and other sources of financial support to pay his remaining balance from the spring semester, allowing him to enroll in fall classes.

In a Sept. 20 Instagram post, GLO wrote that Zablon enrolled in fall classes and is no longer at risk of losing his student visa. Zablon also received withheld payment for work he completed during the half of the summer while inactive, according to GLO representatives.

“No other person should (have) to go through this,” Zablon said. 

Clew GS

Clew, a master’s student in the joint Masters of Fine Arts program between Brown and Trinity Repertory Company, originally planned to begin their final year this fall. Toward the end of the spring 2022 semester, they said they received an offer to join a theater production in New York through the first few months of the fall semester. 

“I was excited because I had been involved during an earlier reading of the work,” Clew said. “And, importantly, this is the first role that I have ever received to play a queer Asian character, which is huge for me.” 

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Clew added that the production “would pay more (over) a span of two and a half months than I would get on my student stipend for an entire semester at Brown-Trinity.” 

In an email to The Herald, Ethan Bernstein, executive dean of administration and finance at the Graduate School, wrote that MFA students holding a teaching assistant, research assistant or proctorship position are paid the base stipend rate of $15,904.50 per semester. Clew, who does not work as a teaching assistant, said that the position they were offered in the production came with a salary of about $10,000 for two-and-a-half months of work.

Clew said directors and actors like themself are sometimes permitted to pursue external work opportunities while in the MFA program, “so I was hopeful that the program would work with me to accommodate this opportunity,” they said. The Brown-Trinity MFA program website notes that “professional leaves are not typically approved for these programs.”

During a Zoom meeting with Angela Brazil, director of MFA programs, Clew learned that their request for unpaid professional leave during the production was denied.

Brazil wrote in an email to The Herald that she is “not able to comment on a student's academic or personal circumstances.”

Shortly after, Clew learned their sister was diagnosed with cancer and required emergency surgery. Clew is their sister’s only immediate family member. 

Clew said they spent the ensuing two months reaching out to multiple University administrators in their effort to attain family leave in a series of emails reviewed by The Herald. 

In June, Clew requested unpaid family leave to care for their sister. In an email to Maria Suarez, associate dean of student support at the Graduate School, Clew noted that the Graduate School’s policy on family leave covers a “spouse, domestic partner, child or parent” but not siblings, adding that the policy “does not take into account nontraditional family structures like mine.” 

On July 14, Suarez wrote in an email to Clew that the Graduate School denied their request for leave and reiterated the family leave policy. 

Clew sent an email July 17 to two University administrators asking for assistance in being approved for family leave. In the email, Clew explained their situation and asked whether Brown could “recognize that for many of its queer, BIPOC, trans and orphaned students, … systems of support, family and chosen family are different.” 

The email was redirected to Thomas Lewis, interim dean of the Graduate School. On Aug. 8, Clew received a letter via email from Lewis upholding the leave denial. In an Aug. 26 email to the University, Clew wrote that they would not return for the fall semester despite their leave request being denied in order to take care of themself and their family, and that they hope to be welcomed back in the spring. 

In an Aug. 29 follow-up email to Clew, Lewis wrote that Clew’s previous plans to participate in the New York theater production during the fall semester were “incompatible” with their request for family leave. 

Bernstein wrote that the Graduate School offers several types of leave. “Individual program structures vary and may not always accommodate every leave type. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis with the goal of providing the student the best possible academic outcome.”

Bernstein wrote that the University cannot disclose information about the personal, financial or academic circumstances of students because it “would violate not only federal law, but our commitment to protecting the privacy of our students.”

Lewis did not respond to a second request for comment after forwarding the initial request to Bernstein. Suarez reiterated part of Bernstein’s statement in an email to The Herald, writing that the University cannot provide information about specific students. 

“I need to work in order to pay my bills and take care of my family, … whether it’s an opportunity that we already know (the University) isn’t pleased with or it’s me working at Starbucks,” Clew said. The program “doesn’t pay us a lot to begin with, and my sister is going through chemotherapy and not working.” 

In a Sept. 8 letter sent to Clew by Brazil, they were told that “opting out of the fall semester without an approved leave of absence will trigger a withdrawal from the program.” 

“I don’t think that asking for a semester of unpaid leave is asking for the world,” Clew said. “I think it’s quite a rational request.”

Karina Santamaria GS

Santamaria, who began her seventh year in the SPH doctoral program earlier this year, said she faced challenges completing her program in 2019, during which she experienced “an avalanche of personal stressors.”

After communicating her situation to the University, Santamaria said she received status letters from administration which she said conveyed doubts about her taking the program seriously.

Santamaria said she received an extension of three months to complete her dissertation proposal. She successfully defended her proposal in January 2019, passing with revisions and a second deadline in May 2019 to implement them.  

While continuing to face personal stressors, Santamaria submitted her proposal three days after the revision deadline in May 2019, she said. In response, she was informed that she was terminated from the program.

Santamaria said the termination notice she received stated that she had not submitted a dissertation despite her submission previously passing with revisions. 

“There was just such a discrepancy, and to me it was really shocking,” she added. “That's why I (decided) to appeal this.”

Santamaria appealed her termination the following week and had to disclose “very painful” personal circumstances to the Graduate School’s administration as part of the process, she said. 

Santamaria was reinstated following her appeal, but was placed on an indefinite warning status, she said. The status resulted in the withdrawal of $12,000 in fellowship funding and left her ineligible for most grant funding, she said. In order to continue her research that fall, Santamaria said she had to rely on micro-grants from her department, which she explained wouldn’t arrive until January and February of the following semester. 

The warning status took away “all of my resources to complete this study,” Santamaria said. 

In an email to The Herald, Bernstein wrote that the Graduate School offers doctoral students five years of guaranteed financial support, writing that the University “believe(s) it to be the strongest guaranteed funding package available to graduate students of any institution.” Santamaria began her sixth year in the doctoral program last year. 

“Each year, doctoral students receive progress letters and are advised closely to ensure satisfactory academic progress,” he wrote. “The Graduate School Handbook includes detailed information regarding academic standing. There are various resources available to help students who encounter academic difficulties and/or who need to continue their study beyond year five.”

But due to her warning status, Santamaria said she was left without funding to complete her dissertation.

“From 2019 to 2020, there was no money,” Santamaria said. “During the pandemic in 2021, I was able to launch the study. My budget was $5,000 in two micro-grants of $2,500.” 

Santamaria collected data for her dissertation from January through May of 2021. In early May, the dissertation committee “pushed me to collect more data,” Santamaria said, adding that they “acknowledged it was expensive.”

The additional data “was not part of my budget, but I agreed to it anyway,” she said.

As she was working on data collection, Santamaria said she was offered a summer teaching assistantship position, leading her to pause her full-time job search. But a few weeks later, she said she was told that her program was no longer sponsoring the TA position.

“That sent me into a frenzy,” Santamaria said. “I had to go into offices and say, ‘I don’t have any money for rent or food next month. Can you help me while I do something fast to earn money?’”

In order to pay bills, Santamaria began driving for Uber and Lyft full time. Without enough research funding, she said she was no longer able to afford more data collection and began submitting job applications until she found stable employment as a grant writer outside the University in late 2021.

“From June to November, that was my life,” she said.

After learning about her circumstances, Santamaria said the committee agreed to let her continue with the data she had already collected, giving her a dissertation defense deadline of late June 2022. 

“Everyone agreed to be flexible,” realizing that “this is a tight deadline,” Santamaria said, noting that she was also working “excessive hours in this new job.”

But throughout early 2022, “that flexibility just went away,” Santamaria said.

She explained that she was assigned a number of deadlines earlier this year which were not discussed in her prior meetings, including having “three complete drafts” of her dissertation by June 1. 

After not submitting her dissertation by June 8, Santamaria’s dissertation defense was canceled, despite her data being analyzed and the majority of her submission being complete, she said. 

Members of Santamaria’s committee could not be reached for comment. Christopher Kahler, chair of the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, declined to direct requests for comment to the committee, citing federal regulations and university policy to protect student information and records.

GLO leadership told The Herald that Santamaria’s committee had the ability to better handle her case. 

Internal deadlines for doctoral programs “are set as guidelines to make sure that you do progress under a reasonable timeline, but ultimately they’re completely discretionary,” explained GLO Vice President Alessandro Moghrabi GS.

Santamaria’s committee “had every ability to respond compassionately, and they chose not to,” added GLO President Sherena Razek GS.

According to GLO Secretary Julia Huggins GS, there are a number of reasons why administrators or faculty may want graduate students to leave their programs, including “bloat in departments, because there are larger cohorts than departments may assume there would be.”

Santamaria said she contacted her employer to request a week off to finish her last paper. In response, her employer advised her to resign “as soon as possible” instead. 

“What am I going to do?” Santamaria said. “I had to resign.”

Bernstein wrote that the University “has multiple mechanisms and processes in place to ensure that policies and deadlines are administered equitably. These include work ‘on the front end’ to develop strong policies and practices as well as multiple oversight and appeal mechanisms to review instances in which students have concerns.”

But Santamaria said her experience is reflective of the University’s lack of readiness for low-income students.

“I came here as a low-income, first-generation, 45-year-old student,” Santamaria said. “I’ve been here for a very long time and have invested a lot and have given up a lot to be here.”

“There’s a lot of recruitment of diversity” at Brown, she added. “But there’s not enough of a plan to deal with what comes with that diversity. The answer cannot just be, ‘Get out.’ ”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the pay that Clew was offered for their fall semester production. The Herald regrets the error.


Neil Mehta

Neil Mehta is a designer and senior staff writer at The Herald covering the Diversity beat. He is a sophomore from New York studying public health. 



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