Overworked and underpaid: Leslie Nickerson balances being a teacher, mother and UB student
Leslie Nickerson’s world changed during her maternity leave in the fall of 2015.
Nickerson, a sixth year teaching assistant (TA) and English Ph.D candidate at UB, did not only receive zero maternity benefits, but she had to pay out of pocket for her own health insurance. She had to take out student loans and remain enrolled in the university in order to take care of herself.
Even now, a daycare program for her one-year-old daughter is too expensive, which temporarily changed Nickerson’s teaching to a virtual job.
According to Nickerson, an adjunct English professor is paid roughly $2,500 per course and $10,000 a year and TAs make roughly $14,000 a year teaching one class per semester. She said the pay scale is “drastically different.”
“I’m looking at that and saying, OK, I’ll be less able to afford childcare then I’m also wondering how my dissertation is going to get done,” she said.
Nickerson said she thinks she’ll have to take out more student loans this semester so she can put her daughter in daycare and work on her dissertation.
She said her husband makes enough money that they don’t qualify for food stamps. She said they just missed qualifying for WIC, a program designed for pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding women and children who are under five. She said she and her husband made a couple hundred dollars more than the cutoff amount.
Nickerson said she may qualify for WIC once she is an adjunct professor. She said she hopes they qualify for a childcare subsidy through Erie County.
Meanwhile, expenses weren’t the only struggle in Nickerson’s life. When she was 18 years old, she had to postpone her dreams of becoming a music teacher due to a developed violin performance related injury called Thoracic outlet syndrome.
She said when she got into the conservatory at Baldwin Wallace University it was like a “shark tank.”
“It was a whole lot of pressure and it wasn’t a good kind of pressure for me,” Nickerson said. “Some people really thrive in that environment and I did not.”
She said she was forced to take some time off orchestra and was starting to feel unhappy. She decided to take general education requirements, which was when she took an English class that transformed her career path entirely.
When she received her first paper back from her Western world literature professor, Dr. Dolzani, there was a note on the back asking if she ever thought about majoring in English.
“That was all the push I needed and so the rest is history,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson said she never regrets switching to English. She has taught English classes at private schools such as St. Bonaventure and Baldwin Wallace University, but she said she has found UB to be her most rewarding teaching experience.
She said one of her biggest struggles as a sixth-year graduate student is that she is running out of funding. Nickerson said she only has funding this semester because she took a semester off for her maternity leave.
“My major obstacle has also been one of my greatest things,” Nickerson said, “It’s being a parent and a student and a teacher all at the same time, which is really hard.”
Nickerson opted to take a full semester off and postpone her TA funding instead of losing six weeks of pay by taking six weeks off and having a substitute professor.
“I’m really glad that I made that decision now because in retrospect I really wouldn’t have been able to come back after six weeks,” Nickerson said.
She said her daughter had reflux and wasn’t able to sleep until she was four months old.
“That was a challenge,” Nickerson said. “It was hard enough without any teaching obligations, so I don’t know what we would have done if I had taken the other option.”
Nickerson attended the adjunct faculty fair pay rally last May and she said she hasn’t seen any changes in salary.
Nickerson said the new Graduate Student Association (GSA) President Tanja Aho “is working hard on making the university more friendly for parenting graduate students.”
She also said Aho is looking into ways to bring back the child care scholarship and make day care more affordable.
Nickerson said childcare is “incredibly expensive” and affordable childcare on campus would be “a game changer.”
According to Nickerson, the graduate student employees’ union has a “flexible” spending account available for childcare expenses. Nickerson said the state gives $500 toward childcare if a TA is signed up for it. But for Nickerson, this is the last semester she has access to this due to her 10-semester contract.
“That’s something that would not just benefit TA’s like myself or grad students but undergraduate students too,” Nickerson said. “A lot of people end up going back to school after they have kids. Having affordable childcare would be really helpful.”
Nickerson said she has a parenting undergraduate student in her class this semester and has had parenting students in past semesters.
“It is incredibly challenging to go to school if you’re a parent – whether you’re an undergrad or a grad,” Nickerson said. “I think there needs to be a lot more support [at UB]. I think that it’s the kind of thing that would become what they call best practices in a university. If you get some universities to change, I think that would really help to change things nationally. UB could, as they put it with their new branding campaign, lead the charge. They should lead the charge on that.”
Nickerson and her husband have tried a “hand-off” approach where she takes care of her daughter in the day until her husband comes home from work. She said once he gets home, she tries to focus on her schoolwork. She is teaching an online course this semester so she can be home to watch her daughter all day.
According to Nickerson, adjuncts receive health insurance if they teach two courses a semester, which is considered halftime. For a full time professor, two courses a semester is full time. She said professors make a lot more than adjuncts do.
Nickerson said that she will be under a different union (UUP) for full time faculty.
Nickerson’s 10-semester TA contract ends this December, so she is doing an alternative academia job search to see what other jobs offer “a little bit more of a living wage.”
Nickerson said she doesn’t have state certification but is looking into working at private high schools, nonprofit organizations and labor organizing.
Even her students notice how hard it must be for Nickerson to teach and raise her baby while being a student.
Lisa Gagnon, a senior English and linguistics major, had Nickerson as a TA for Early and Late Shakespeare Plays with Professor Barbara Bono in fall 2014 and spring 2015, respectively.
“I definitely look up to all the dedicated and intelligent female professors I've had at UB who have successfully juggled academia and family,” Gagnon said.
Gagnon said Nickerson was “extremely knowledgeable and competent” while giving recitations a “relaxed” atmosphere.
Gagnon said when the professor unexpectedly did not show up for class one day, Nickerson pulled up a slide show and gave a 50-minute lecture with no warning on the significance of clothing in the play they were studying.
“It's unusual to have such a high level TA, and I think that really enhanced my experience of the class as a whole,” Gagnon said. “She definitely could have taught the class herself.”
Nickerson said she enjoys teaching students one on one and teaching online this semester has been a little bit of an adjustment, but she will be meeting with her students one-on-one this week to get to know them so it’s “less alienating.”
Nickerson was the recipient of the Graduate Student Excellence in Teaching Award last year and was one of three recipients to receive an Opler-Doubrava Fifth-Year Fellowshipfrom the UB English department for her first chapter of her dissertation.
“As a teacher I really strive to do the best for my students that I can,” Nickerson said. “I believe that writing and critical thinking are really important and if I can teach students those skills, then they will go out into the world better placed to be citizens.”