In this podcast episode, Emily interview Lauri Lutes, a fourth-year PhD student at Oregon State University and single mother. Lauri’s stipend is equivalent to the local living wage for just one adult, yet she supports herself and her daughter on it without using student loans. Lauri details how she makes ends meet by taking advantage of every possible university and community benefit, such as subsidized and free childcare, food assistance, and recreation and arts scholarships. Lauri additionally serves her community by advocating for graduate student parents on two university boards.
Links mentioned in episode
1:02 Please Introduce Yourself
Lauri Lutes is a PhD student at Oregon State University. She studies viruses on sweet cherry trees. She has an 8 year old daughter and she’s a single mom.
2:19 What is your current annual income and expenses?
Lauri’s graduate stipend is $24,000 per year. Her assistantship is assured for her entire PhD, for either teaching or research. Her modest estimate of her current annual expenses is $27,000 to $30,000. These expenses cover a bare minimum, like paying rent, and don’t include expenses like a car payment. Her estimates don’t take into account her supplemental income from food assistance programs.
According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator (livingwage.mit.edu), the living wage for one adult with one child in Benton County, Oregon is $51,000 before tax/$42,000 after tax. In order to live with her daughter on her Oregon State University PhD stipend, Lauri has to take advantage of every possible resource.
4:24 What benefits do you receive and how did you find these benefits?
When Lauri was considering graduate school, her daughter was four years old. Lauri was most interested in Pacific Northwest universities, and she was surprised to learn that Oregon State University offers resources to help graduate students who are parents be successful.
Lauri receives two main benefits from the university. First, she receives a childcare subsidy that is provided through student fees and donor funding. Through the childcare subsidy, up to 50% of childcare expenses are covered. This subsidy is applicable for childcare for very young children before they’re in school, as well as for before and after school programs for children in public school. Lauri says it’s rare for a university to offer this assistance, and for the subsidy to cover up to 50%.
Second, Lauri receives assistance for non-school childcare. Oregon State University has two childcare facilities that are drop-in for up to three hours per day. This service is free. The childcare facilities are located in the library and in the recreation center. They are open from 10am to 7pm on the weekends and during the weekdays as well. They accept children on a first-come, first-serve basis, but Lauri has not had problems with accessing childcare from these facilities. Student workers from child development, education relevant fields are the childcare providers. Lauri says the facilities are a well-managed, reliable resource for student parents.
9:31 What is your daily routine like? Is your advisor supportive?
During Lauri’s first couple of years in her PhD program, she served in orchards throughout the entire State. Lauri had to take day trips and overnight trips for her work. She relied on friends and her community for help. Lately, she is in the lab for most of the day. She tries to keep a 9 to 5 work schedule. Her work doesn’t require her to be in the lab on the weekends. When she does travel, the bulk of her work is in the Columbia River Gorge, which is three hour drive from her university.
Laurie says she has an incredibly supportive advisor. She says she is fortunate that her advisor doesn’t make her compromise her parenting for her work. During her graduate school interviews, Lauri didn’t emphasize that she had a daughter, but she didn’t make it a secret. She encourages other people to consider how their potential advisors would support them.
13:06 Tell us about your service experience on advisory boards and committees.
Lauri was invited to join the advisory board of the university’s Family Resource Center. She viewed this as a place to get her voice heard, and to give a voice to graduate student parents. The advisory board decides on the budget for student fees, where that funding goes under the umbrella of the Family Resource Center. This budget includes the childcare assistance stipend, which is available for students with families on campus and employees with dependents.
Additionally, Lauri is the graduate student representative on the committee for children, youth and families in the university’s faculty senate. This committee reports directly to president of the university. To Lauri, this seems like they can make changes on the university level. This committee considers the university experience of students and faculty with dependents, not limited to only young children. Lauri says they want to cultivate a culture of care at the university, that includes being able to support students and faculty in whatever is going on in their lives. When employers are sensitive to family and personal issues, people are kept in the workforce.
17:34 What strategies do you use to keep expenses down?
Lauri emphasizes how important it was to let go of the stigma of needing help and asking for help. Before graduate school, Lauri had a stable position in industry and an income to support herself and her daughter. Graduate school brought a drastic change in income which was difficult to accept and deal with. To achieve her goal of getting a PhD, she had to use university and community resources.
Lauri uses the food bank on campus, and has let go of the stigma of actually going to food bank. Food insecurity is not only experienced by people with families. It is an all too common issue being discussed at many universities. Over half of Lauri’s income goes to rent, and there is no way for her to make that better. Lauri says one way to supplement her income is in food assistance. She says she has to accept that this is where she’s at right now. Oregon State University manages a twitter account @eatfreeOSU that provides centralized posts of where there is leftover free food from events. Some people rely on free food from seminars.
Lauri gets some funding through the SNAP food assistance program. She applied online, which she says was a fairly easy process, and had a phone interview. She had to prove her income initially and again every six months or whenever her income changes. SNAP benefits are for her daughter, not for use by her. The State of Oregon provides information for SNAP online. Oregon State University’s Human Services Resource Center is very helpful for students. Not every university has a centralized center for finding food assistance.
Lauri is enrolled in Mealbux, a university program funded by student fees. She applies every term. The application is a questionnaire about a student’s income and food insecurity situation. The funds are loaded onto the student id card for use on campus. This assistance is specifically for Lauri. Mealbux helps with a student’s sense of belonging on campus.
Lauri recently moved her daughter to school closer to home. At this new school, her daughter participates in free lunch program. Lauri has a car that is very old so she doesn’t have car payment. She rarely uses her car and expects it to break down anytime. She uses her bicycle to get around. She knows food expenses are hard to minimize.
Lauri finds community resources in many places. Local parks and recreation department has scholarships available, such as one that allowed them membership to community pool. Her daughter gets scholarships to take classes, like dance class or painting class. These are things Lauri wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. Another resource is the Arts for All programs that provide inexpensive tickets to theater events. Lauri says don’t be afraid to apply for help and scholarships. She wants to give her daughter opportunities that she can’t afford on her own. She’s always looking for resources and she’s not afraid to take advantage of available programs.
30:30 Why have you chosen to this frugal strategy instead of taking out student loans?
Lauri has debt from her undergraduate education. These loans are deferred, but they are looming over her. She does not want to contribute more than she absolutely has to. She did take out a few loans to help transition into the PhD program. She has $30,000 loans for undergrad, and she’d rather make sacrifices now than contribute more to debt.
Lauri used to make living wage and be comfortable. Her goal isn’t to increase her wages with her PhD. Her field, plant pathology, is not known for high wages. She wants to be open to a postdoc position after graduate school. She expects to make similar wages as she did in the industry job she had with a Bachelors degree. She went to graduate school for education, fulfillment, and opportunity. When she finishes her PhD, she won’t make a lot of money that she can use to pay off debt. Emily adds that it’s challenging to pay off debt at any time.
33:55 Final Comments
Lauri advises graduate student parents to take advantage of resources. Search for them, ask about them, and talk to others about possible benefits. By diving into resources, you’ll become aware of more. She believes that getting a PhD is worth the financial sacrifice. Though it is a financial challenge, don’t give up on your dreams.