Graduate Students

SUNY-ESF graduate students protest student fees, low salaries

Julia Niehoff | Contributing Writer

During the protest, CFO Joseph Rufo remained in his office with the door closed. An administrative staff member stayed at the door to ESF President Joanie Mahoney's office to hear both the petition and testimonials from organizers.

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UPDATED: Nov. 5, 2021 at 3:29 p.m.

SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry graduate student workers gathered in Bray Hall Thursday afternoon to protest the base stipend for graduate workers and student fees. 

Students presented a petition with more than 170 signatures from graduate students and faculty at SUNY-ESF and other SUNY colleges and universities to the president and vice president’s office. 

In testimonials collected over the course of two years, which graduate student workers sent to the Graduate Students Employees Union, students wrote that they had to live off of food stamps to afford groceries. One student said they had to sell their car. 


Organizers read the testimonials aloud in the ESF administration building. 

Alex Cook, a master’s student in environmental forest biology, wrote in a testimonial that it is unfair that graduate students make money from ESF only to pay it back to the college through student fees.

The student fee is paid to the university by all students attending ESF, including those that are on salary for teaching positions in classes and labs. The fee includes a technology fee as well as others. 

“The impacts of these low salaries are felt even harder by students when they are forced to essentially return the wages they received back to the university,” Cook said in her testimonial. “The fact that we must give up … our salary back to the university is unacceptable.” 


Justin Belisty is a Ph.D. candidate who studies environmental resources engineering. He said he had dipped into his savings to relocate from New Jersey to Syracuse. When he accepted his position at ESF, Belisty said he was promised a tuition waiver.

After he got started at ESF though, he found himself having to pay to take classes.

The lack of transparency regarding these fees, particularly when discussing financial details with prospective advisors, is something many of my peers and I have experienced,” Belisty said. “I left my friends and family, my well-paying job, to follow my dreams of earning my Ph.D. and one day becoming a professor.”

International students at ESF such as Shumaila Javed Bhatti, an environmental science Ph.D. candidate, have felt the burden as well. 

It is already extremely tough to find work on campus and also paid internships or summer work off campus. And this really puts an undue burden on me,” Bhatti said. “If I am stressed out about my inability to make payment for my basic needs and the fees, I cannot concentrate on the research work and my Ph.D., which should be my top priority.”

The typical graduate assistantship stipend for master’s level students at SUNY-ESF is $14,000 per academic year, according to ESF’s graduate school page. Doctoral stipends are usually around $16,000 per academic year. Meanwhile, the average required annual income before taxes to cover expenses in Syracuse is estimated to be $29,313 for one adult with no children.

“Basically, it is a pay-to-work scheme, like you have to pay to work for the ‘privilege’ to work with your employer, which is ridiculous,” said Shelby Zangari, an environmental chemistry Ph.D. candidate and an elected representative of Graduate Student Employees United. 

Zangari said that the school’s administration has failed to listen to graduate students.

“We have been trying to talk to the president, the CFO and the SUNY Board of Trustees for over a year now to say, ‘We shouldn’t have to pay these fees.’ And they have been shutting us down over and over again,” Zangari said.

Organizers discussed how SUNY-ESF has historically tried to impose fees on graduate students, such as a previously proposed “Excellence and Success fee” of up to $525. The college did not end up charging students the fee after many students provided testimony opposing it.

During the protest, CFO Joseph Rufo remained in his office with the door closed. An administrative staff member stayed at the door to ESF President Joanie Mahoney’s office to hear both the petition and testimonials from organizers. 

Organizers like Graham Perner, a graduate student studying environmental policy and a GSEU organizer, have felt frustrated due to the inaction of ESF’s administration. 

“We have letters from SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras stating that graduate students should not have to pay fees. We are just trying to make sure that ESF is living up to what even the chancellor believes,” Perner said.

A spokesperson for the SUNY-ESF told The Daily Orange in an email that in 2020, graduate students had received an average 15% pay raise. 

“The student fee is to cover graduate students’ use of services available on ESF and Syracuse University campuses, just as our other graduate students pay,” the spokesperson said.

CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this post stated that graduate assistants received an average 15% pay raise in 2020 but lacked context regarding the amount of their stipends and the estimated required annual income to cover expenses in Syracuse. The post incorrectly stated how testimonials read at the protest were collected. Alex Cook’s pronouns were misstated, and Shelby Zangari and Graham Perner’s positions with the Graduate Student Employees Union were not included in a previous version of this post. A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that ESF currently charges students an “excellence fee.” The Daily Orange regrets these errors.

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