Northwestern Graduate Workers supports graduate student in-person safety


Daily file illustration by Angeli Mittal

Northwestern University Graduate Workers provided KN95 masks to graduate students in response to NU’s allegedly uneven distribution of them.

Iris Swarthout, Assistant Campus Editor

When Northwestern announced a return to in-person classes, KN95 mask distribution to graduate students was “extremely” uneven, according to Northwestern University Graduate Worker’s Communications Coordinator and music composition Ph.D. fifth-year Ben Zucker. 

While some organizations and departments gave KN95 masks to their graduate workers, many who wanted the extra protection had to pay upward of $30 for a pack of 50, as most retailers don’t sell them individually. In response to the disparity, NUGW organized to distribute about 400 masks, made possible by member funding, to students on the Chicago and Evanston campuses.

NUGW solidified these plans around Jan. 13, about a week before in-person classes began, Zucker said. At the same time, a student petition circulated asking administration to postpone the start to in-person classes until COVID-19 cases decreased and KN95 masks were made available for the entire community.

“We became … very quickly aware that a lot of people did not feel comfortable returning to campus and that things that were being provided were inadequate, usually surgical masks,” Zucker said.

NUGW distributed the masks on Jan. 21 in Evanston and Jan. 25 in Chicago. During the Evanston giveaway, graduate and postdoctoral students received an email from The Graduate School announcing a mass distribution of KN95 masks while supplies last on both campuses.

Chris Eckdahl, a fifth-year chemistry Ph.D. candidate, said the timing of the email was convenient. 

“It certainly seemed like them sending out that email was a direct result of (NUGW) meeting a need that they were not meeting and not wanting to look bad,” he said. 

Zucker said the email falsely disguised the University’s decision as proactive rather than responsive to student outcry. He added NU should have distributed KN95 masks evenly to the graduate community before the return to in-person classes. 

The administration’s attentiveness to NUGW’s mutual aid events is not new, Zucker said. He added the organization is well aware the University follows their social media pages.

“We have past precedented proof that public pressure works and that the administration is generally reactive,” Zucker said. “It was important for us to demonstrate that the people who are most proactive about taking care of and responding to graduate student needs are other graduate students.”

The students noted that some graduate workers are exposed to COVID-19 more readily than others based on their programs’ demands. 

For third-year music theory and cognition Ph.D. student Sara Bowden, their courses are relatively small, so they aren’t worried about class exposure. Instead, Bowden, who signed the petition, said they are exposed to COVID-19 most during their commute on the Intercampus shuttle. 

“I see all kinds of different qualities of masking in and around the School of Music, and I wish we had the proper tools to protect ourselves now,” Bowden said. “Students shouldn’t have to spend their own money to protect themselves learning in a university that they’re paying tuition to attend.”

KN95 masks are still available for graduate students to pick up at Norris University Center from 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday. Chicago-based students can find them at 345 Superior St. from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. NUGW also kept some masks in reserve from their distribution in case upcoming mutual aid efforts call for them. 

In the future, Bowden said NUGW will continue to help graduate students garner the resources they need to feel safe in their workplaces. They said they hope students continue to advocate for themselves so the University can accommodate their needs. 

“I would hope that (NU) would anticipate our needs, but when the University does not, NUGW has your back,” Bowden said.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @swarthout_iris

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