Fulbright Language Assistants Petition for Pandemic Compensation

This morning, March 30, three Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTA) for the Spanish Department sent a petition with over 400 signatures to the administration, requesting room and board compensation for the 2020-2021 academic year.

This morning, three Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTA) for the Spanish Department sent a petition to the administration requesting compensation for room and board for the 2020-2021 academic year, a part of the Fulbright grant they did not receive that year when they worked and studied remotely due to the pandemic. The petition had been circulating among students for several days, garnering over 400 signatures.

FLTAs are Fulbright grantees who serve as language assistants at the college, holding discussion sections and extracurricular events for students, in addition to taking a half course load themselves. For their year-long term, FLTAs are typically compensated with half tuition, room and board, and a cash stipend, which equaled $6,900 in the 2020-2021 academic year.

In the petition, the authors — Johann Kevin Mafla Orjuela, Emilia Farias Ferreira, and Carlos Pech Guzmán — state that after signing their Terms of Appointment (ToA) for the 2020-2021 academic year, they were informed by the college that they would not be able to come to campus in the Fall 2020 semester. Although their ToAs stipulated that they receive a financial award covering room and board, as well as daily living expenses, the $15,910 for room and board was subsequently left out of their compensation, the petition explains.

“We were surprised that room and board were omitted from the total grant since the cash stipend was not enough to cover living expenses in our countries,” the petition continues. “This resulted in a financial burden because we had to leave our home jobs and decline any job opportunities in order to continue with the FLTA program.”

The petition notes that the FLTAs’ request for a greater stipend to cover such living expenses was denied by the administration — with Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein writing that the program is “actually very expensive” for the college — and that the FLTAs were not able to defer their grant because they had already signed their contracts with the Fulbright program. The college’s failure to cover living expenses “is a breach of contract,” the petition writes.

The authors ask that the college “do good on its financial obligations,” with Orjuela and Ferreira requesting the total sum of $15,910, and Guzmán requesting $7,955 since he had come to campus in Spring 2021 and thus been credited with the cost of room and board that semester.

In an interview with The Student, Orjuela, Ferreira, and Guzmán explained that the impetus for writing the petition came from seeing a recent Instagram post from the college that expressed pride in being named once again as a top producer of Fulbright scholars  this year. Upon seeing the post, Orjuela recalled, “we just felt like, ‘You’re taking pride in the Fulbright program, but you’re not actually honoring the policies of the Fulbright program?’”

“Amherst’s pride in its involvement with the Fulbright program should not just center around its production of Fulbright Awardees,” they write in the petition. “Rather, it should also include its pride in having a thriving program for FLTA’s to visit its campus when they are paid what they are deserved.”

Both in the petition and in the interview, the three FLTAs detailed financial challenges that the reduced compensation last year had brought. Ferreira noted that she was living with her boyfriend in Montevideo, Uruguay, at the time and had to rely a bit on him, especially because “the capital city is just much more expensive than other cities.

She added that “I used to help my family financially, so [no longer being able to do that] was really difficult.” Orjuela and Guzmán — who were located in Madrid, Spain, and Yucatán, Mexico, respectively — similarly noted that they were unable to contribute as much to their families while living at home, since their income was so much lower than what they had been making at their jobs before becoming FLTAs, which they had had to quit due to the schedule and time commitment of the program.

Orjuela emphasized, however, that the effects of the reduced compensation have no bearing on whether they should receive the compensation. “Even if we had, let’s say, the wealth of this college,” he said, “that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get paid.”

“It doesn’t matter if we were struggling or not,” echoed Ferreira. “That was part of the deal. And they didn’t commit to that.”

Beyond the hope that the college will honor their requests for compensation, the three FLTAs also expressed wanting the petition to draw the community’s attention to their experiences, in terms of not just the financial challenges during the pandemic, but also the lack of support they feel at the college in occupying a “gray zone,” as Ferreira put it, between full-time students and staff.

“Our expectations are that people really recognize the role that we have and the amount of effort we put into getting the [Fulbright] scholarship,” she said, noting that universities in her home country make much more of an effort to integrate the Fulbright scholars they receive than she has seen in her own experience here.

Although the challenges in the FLTAs’ experience cannot all be easily solved, Ferreira expressed gratitude for the support that the community has already shown them. “We’re very grateful for everyone who signed the petition,” she said. “It was really nice to feel like the whole community was interested in getting to know what was happening.”

Note: The Student will continue to report on this story as it develops, including the administration’s response to the petition.