Foon Rhee

Resistance isn’t futile. Just ask this UC Davis grad student who took on Republicans

USC graduate students Mariel Bello, Nina Christie and Alyssa Morris, left to right, pose for a “selfie” to send to their representatives in Congress at a Nov. 29 rally to protest the GOP tax bill. TNS)
USC graduate students Mariel Bello, Nina Christie and Alyssa Morris, left to right, pose for a “selfie” to send to their representatives in Congress at a Nov. 29 rally to protest the GOP tax bill. TNS) Los Angeles Times/TNS

In her own small way, Averyl Dietering moved the levers of power in Washington, D.C. – and taught all of us a valuable lesson.

She’s a graduate student who led UC Davis’s part in national protests against some of the worst parts of the GOP tax monstrosity – provisions that would have repealed tax-free tuition waivers and the deduction for interest on student loans.

 
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These stupid and self-defeating ideas were in the bill passed by the U.S. House and were on the table late into negotiations with the Senate. Thankfully, they were taken out of the final version passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump just before Christmas.

Graduate students and their allies, it turned out, were more successful in their lobbying than other interest groups. Officials in California and New York, for instance, were only able to partly restore the deduction for state income taxes.

For Dietering, 27, her activism wasn’t planned. She’s from Utah, earned her undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University, her master’s at the University of Arizona and is working on her doctorate in literary criticism at UC Davis.

In November, she started seeing friends and fellow grad students expressing concern and anger on social media that the Republican tax bill could hit them in the pocketbook – and possibly even force them to drop out of school.

“I was upset and worried about it as well,” Dietering recalls. While she probably wouldn’t have had to leave school, she would have had to retool her finances. She gets a tuition waiver of about $13,600 a year, plus a stipend of about $2,200 a month after taxes while teaching three undergraduate classes.

“I felt like I could do something,” she said. So she reached out to the Graduate Student Association and the UC Student-Workers Union, but everyone was busy with classes and exams.

Then on Nov. 16, the House passed its tax bill, including provisions to require more than 140,000 graduate students to pay taxes on tuition waivers, although the money never actually passes through their hands.

Opposition spread across the nation with more news reports on the impact on graduate students. Experts said they faced the biggest tax increases of any group under the bill, and the American Council on Education projected $65 billion in additional costs for all students between 2018 and 2027.

Dietering got more support from the GSA, from several other graduate students and from the graduate student dean. UC Davis Chancellor Gary May chimed in with an article published in The Bee. He and other education leaders warned that the proposal would hurt essential research and, thus, economic development.

The resistance culminated in a nationwide Grad Tax Walkout on Nov. 29, when graduate students at more than 40 campuses left classes and labs to speak out against the tax changes. At UC Davis, nearly 100 students, faculty and others attended the rally.

Dietering told fellow students not only to contact lawmakers, but also ask administrators for help in case the tax provisions became law. Her worries grew when the Senate narrowly passed its tax bill in the wee hours of Dec. 2. Though it didn’t include the provisions targeting graduate students, the vote showed that Republican leaders could push sweeping tax reform through Congress despite unanimous opposition from Democrats.

But when the final deal was approved Dec. 20, it did not include the graduate student provisions. Dietering was pleasantly surprised, but exhausted. “I hardly had any energy to celebrate,” she said. “I just said, ‘Thank God.’ 

If Republicans in Congress come after higher education again, Dietering and other students have shown they are organized enough to have an impact – and shown the Resistance a thing or two about how to win.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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