I took a year off from higher education between high school and college because I didn’t know what I wanted to study and I was tired of going to school. Perhaps for the aforementioned reasons, when I started taking classes at a nearby community college I didn’t feel like a real student despite my full-time course load.

I felt like a full-time server who happened to be taking college classes. Yet, when I would talk with customers at my tables, people would constantly ask me, “So what’s your real job?” or, “What are you studying in school?” Although I had my own apartment and paid my bills with the very real money I made working at my very real job, being a server was often mistaken as an unreal or fake job.

After finishing my B.A., I was accepted to a master’s program and received a tuition waiver and monthly stipend for working as a teaching assistant. I felt like I had arrived, I finally had a real job.

And, when I lived in West Virginia, a state with one of the lowest costs of living in the country, it started to feel like I had a real job. Especially because I was respected by family friends, and community members in a way I had never experienced as a server. I suspect this was because I was seeking higher education, working for the university, and so forth.

No matter what you do for work, it’s a real job. Csilla Jaray-Benn/Flickr.com

However, when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii, a state with one of the highest costs of living in the country, I quickly realized the monthly TA stipend would not cover cost of living. Despite being praised for continuing my education and working for the university, I was struggling to make ends meet.

I also had to deal with health issues that were further complicated because as a graduate assistant at UH, I didn’t have sick leave. Given the harsh working conditions, I quickly joined the effort to legalize collective bargaining rights for graduate assistants.

(Currently there are approximately 1,300 graduate assistants at UH Manoa and 3,500 enrolled graduate students.)

Fighting The Good Fight

During the four years I’ve been a graduate student at UH, I’ve seen a collective bargaining bill make it through various stages of the legislative process. I’ve gone to the Capitol to lobby on behalf of the bills; I’ve testified at hearings; I’ve sat in on meetings with UH administrators who make empty promises regarding better working conditions for graduate students; and I generally help to fight the good fight, so to speak.

In the most recent legislative session, our graduate student unionization bill died abruptly in the last few days of session. Those of us who had been lobbying, providing testimony, and working toward the passage of our bill, were blindsided and frustrated that our bill had died for the fourth year in a row.

This was especially unsettling given the fact that we had done, and continue to do, our part in terms of making good faith efforts to negotiate with the administration.

Given the overall feeling of frustration and disappointment, graduate students decided to protest at the Capitol. We had shirts and signs promoting our unrecognized union, and we spent the day chanting pro-union slogans at the Capitol. During the height of our protesting, we had 60-plus people including faculty and union allies.

Our protesting caught the attention of many people who work at the Capitol, and throughout the day there were people watching and listening to us in the hallways. Toward the end of our time protesting at the Capitol, someone watching from one of the upper-levels yelled, “Why don’t you get a real job?”

Alas, here I was again trying to sort out what makes my job fake, and what would a real job look like? Don’t people know that graduate students are the people who teach real university classes, and we’re the people on the ground doing real research? How is it possible for someone to still think that I don’t have a real job?

At the risk of getting overly philosophical, what does that even mean, a real job? Does that mean a job that pays (more) money?

If the realness of a job is assessed based on earnings, then my fake serving job would be more real than my fake university job. Surely a mother who stays at home to watch her children knows that her work is quite real, and in fact her family benefits financially as it means not paying for childcare.

Does this mean the realness of a job should be evaluated based on required degree? That would mean my fake university job would be more real than my fake serving job. But, that too doesn’t seem accurate when my serving job pays all of my bills, but my university job doesn’t even come close.

After thinking about the idea of a real job, I still don’t believe I have an accurate understanding of what the phrase means. But, what I do know is that all employees, be it servers or graduate students, should make a living wage. All labor, regardless of whether or not it’s paid, should be valued by society. And, everyone who works, be it paid or unpaid labor, should work in a safe and hostile-free space, should receive health care, and should receive parental and sick leave, to name a few.

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