Language Assistants Speak on Pandemic Challenges

Language assistants at the college report that their unique employment situation has not received adequate support from the college over the course of the pandemic, resulting in a number of financial challenges during the Covid semesters.

Language Assistants Speak on Pandemic Challenges
Language assistants pose for a photo in 2019 before the pandemic began. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

The Covid-19 pandemic has touched the lives of every member of the college community, but its impacts have largely gone unspoken for one vital group on campus: language assistants (LA). Occupying a position that falls between the categories of full-time student and staff at the college, LAs report feeling that their situation has not received adequate attention and support from the college, resulting in a number of financial and other challenges during the pandemic.

LAs work to support language professors at the college, holding discussion sections, language tables, and extracurricular events to engage students in the language and culture they’re learning about. Language assistants also take courses while at the college, with all LAs required to enroll in two courses each semester. About half of the college’s LAs come as part of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program.

LAs are typically compensated with half tuition, room and board, medical insurance, and a stipend of $6,900, totaling just under $55,000. In the 2020-2021 academic year, however, many LAs worked and studied remotely due to the pandemic, and did not receive reimbursement for housing and meals as a result.

Having to cover these living expenses on their own posed a significant hardship for several LAs.  “The stipend received by the LAs for the whole 2020-2021 academic year was $6,900, plus $1,000 as a bonus for the pandemic hardship that every employee of Amherst received last year. Although this money was enough for LAs who lived in smaller cities, it was insufficient for the LAs who lived in capitals with monthly costs of living that exceed $1,500 per month,” explained one language assistant, who will be referred to as Language Assistant A. All language assistants interviewed opted to remain anonymous in order to maintain a comfortable relationship with their employers.

Most LAs were not able to sustain additional sources of income to cover these costs either, added another LA, Language Assistant B. “Three of us had to leave our home jobs, and the others declined [other] job and academic opportunities in order to accept their positions as Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching grantees at Amherst,” they said.

Although LAs were grateful to their departments for doing their best to support them, LAs expressed disappointment with the lack of responsibility taken by the college, as well as the Fulbright program, in ensuring the financial viability of the position.

“When our program started, Fulbright and Amherst College passed the responsibility onto each other while we waited for a solution to our financial situation. Finally, neither of them helped us, and we were left to fend for ourselves. We had to rely on our families during a pandemic that brought an economic crisis to every household,” said Language Assistant B, who noted that funding for Spanish, German, and French FLTAs is supposed to come from host institutions, whereas other Fulbright FLTA grantees, such as those teaching Russian, Indian, and Chinese, received financial assistance from Fulbright to cover living expenses and services.

In a statement to The Student, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote, “The financial parameters were clearly communicated to the LAs prior to their accepting the positions, and, of course, accepting the positions was their decision.”

Language Assistant B said that the college “took advantage of the fact that we all had taken a leave of absence from our jobs or didn’t apply for one. We could not have another job during our program because we worked full time and couldn’t resign from this program because we wouldn’t be able to find another one, in addition to losing our status as a Fulbrighter.”

Being a Fulbright scholarship recipient is “a great privilege,” they reflected, but the college’s treatment “didn’t reflect our importance.”

Some LAs also pointed out the challenges faced by those who did come to Amherst in person during the 2020-2021 academic year.

“Due to the uncertainty of whether they would be able to come to the U.S. and the nature of the pandemic, only one Language Assistant accepted to come,” explained one LA, Language Assistant C. “The Office of Financial Aid did not realize he was not being paid for his work during the spring semester of 2021. His payment was initially intended to be processed in the following academic year (2021-2022). However, his payment was finally made in late June after he and his language department coordinator insisted on the matter.”

On Oct. 17, 2019, language assistants at the college led "Tertulia," a gathering of people to talk about cultural matters in Spanish. The group discussed festivals held in November in Cartagena, Columbia, Salta, Argentina, and Uruguay. Photo courtesy of Maria Stenzel.

With the full return to in-person learning this year, all of the LAs have also returned to the college in person. While many aspects of their situation have improved, they report that the pandemic has magnified a deeper-running issue with their compensation. In particular, the LA stipend is equivalent to $9.58 per hour, $4.67 below the minimum wage in Massachusetts, said Language Assistant A.

According to Epstein, payment for LAs does not follow the same guidelines as regular student jobs and thus does not follow Massachusetts’ raise in the minimum wage. “The language assistants are not paid an hourly rate,” Epstein told The Student. “Next year we will raise the LA stipend from $6,900 to $7,700.”

Language Assistant A expressed his hopes for future LAs who come to work at Amherst. “I hope that incoming Fulbright language assistants can have a better experience without Covid, with the support of the departments that we have had but also sufficient financial support in case they have to work remotely,” they said.

Note, March 9, 2022: A previous version of this article contained a group photo of current LAs at the college. The photo was removed after it was brought to our attention that not all of the LAs in the photo had consented to it being published. The views expressed by the LAs quoted in this article represent only the experiences of those who provided comment, and are not to be attributed to all LAs who were pictured in the photo.