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Graduate Assistants Receive Paycheck
During First Days on Campus
September 6, 1999

Jody Thomas didn't start her teaching assignments until Friday but she had already received her first paycheck three days before - a thrill previously unheard of for most new graduate students.

Thomas, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology transferring to UConn, is new to campus. But thanks to administrative changes introduced during the summer, her paperwork was processed before she set foot in Storrs.

Prior generations of graduate students were not so lucky. They sometimes had to wait until mid-October or later to get paid. In the meantime, they were faced with academic and living expenses that some found extremely hard to meet.

"Graduate students were coming here and hanging by a thread," says Skip Lowe, professor and head of the psychology department, which has about 100 of its 180 graduate students on the University's payroll.

Even with the tuition waiver that accompanies an assistantship, the initial expenses can be considerable.

Thomas, for example, has only been in the state for a week, but already she has had to pay moving expenses, a month's rent plus security deposit, register her car in Connecticut, pay various student fees, including parking and other University fees, and buy books, as well as meet living expenses such as food and gas.

Although her first paycheck didn't cover all those bills, she's relieved that the money has started coming in. Last year, as a first-year graduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, like many graduate students at UConn, she didn't get paid until October.

"I didn't realize that would be the case until I got there and I totally panicked," she says. She borrowed money from her parents but, she adds, "A lot of people don't have the option of going to parents." Some of her friends had to fall back on credit cards to tide them over, she says.

UConn does have some emergency loan funds for graduate students, but borrowing is not an option for everyone. Carl Schneider, a fourth year Ph.D. student in social psychology, says "I rely on my paycheck to avoid taking out loans. I've got enough loans from my undergraduate days."

Tackling the logistics
The steps to get a graduate student on the payroll are complex.

In the past, the graduate assistant payroll authorization was prepared, identification and tax documents were collected from students, and authorization was routed to at least four different places for approval and processing: the Graduate School, the dean, human resources and payroll.

Even with the best efforts, the process would take four to six weeks. "We all worked hard, but it was impossible," Lowe says. "It was just the nature of the beast."

Each fall, about 1,700 graduate assistants are added to the payroll, some of them new, some continuing.

An additional challenge, says Barbara Proulx, associate director of human resources, is that most graduate students come from out of state and many from outside the country. "We don't see them until they're here," she says - and in most cases that means at the end of August.

The goal of paying graduate students in a timely manner required the cooperation of numerous departments on campus, including the Graduate School, payroll, human resources, information technology, and various colleges and schools, including 125 academic departments. It also required an electronic solution.

Now, after a year of preparation and planning, all these different offices have access to the same information in a centralized computer system. As soon as the academic department enters the Social Security number of a graduate that is being hired, the system supplies information from the Graduate School about the individual's citizenship, visa type, spoken English test results, and GPA or course credit problems, allowing the department to recognize any outstanding issues right away.

"Usually that type of thing was not picked up until the end," says Sandy Maheu, manager of processing services. "This is one-stop shopping for graduate students, and reduced duplication of staff effort."

"A few keystrokes bring in all the data that departments used to have to go out and find," adds Proulx.

But there was another issue to be resolved. Graduate students could not be put on the payroll without tax and benefit information, says Jennifer Person, assistant director of payroll, so a new form was created for new hires that is sent to them with the department's offer letter, requiring students to indicate their tax category and select a medical plan. A new website offers information about the medical and dental benefit options available, and also about taxes. Once the form is returned, the payroll authorization can be processed. New students may change to a different plan once they arrive on campus.

Last week, nearly 1,200 graduate assistants received their first paycheck of the year, 333 of them new to the University. In 1998, only 619 graduate assistants were paid in the first pay period of the academic year, and none were new students.

"This is a tribute to the fact that different units can work together," says Jim Henkel, associate dean of the Graduate School. "For departments, it reduces the workload, there's less paper moving around. But it benefits graduate students in a very specific way, it gets them paid on time or as close to on time as can be."

"It's better than we've ever done before," says Judy Campo, executive assistant to the head of the psychology department, where 75 percent of graduate assistants were paid last week.

"Having them on the payroll is such a benefit to the students. We're having to make a lot of changes now because we had to do the paperwork early, but adding another five-hour assignment or changing the coding is not such a big deal as not getting paid."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu