Forum

Shutdown impacts graduate students

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

It has been over a month since the U.S. government announced the shutdown and only a few days since it ended. The over 800,000 federal employees who missed two paychecks are definitely the primary hostages of the current impasse on the border security issue. Travelers to National Parks and residents in D.C. are suffering from collateral damage. In theory, the shutdown should not have affected graduate students who depend on their stipends. However, on campus, where federal employees scarcely visit, we, a group of graduate students who depend extensively on federal and presidential records, were also victims of the government shutdown.

During the government shutdown, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was considered “non-essential,” and its staff were furloughed. The two National Archives in the D.C. area, the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and several presidential libraries dotting the U.S. remained closed to researchers, regardless of their earlier appointments. During this time, all researchers had to cancel their original working plans. Usually, that does not only mean changing their plans solely for visiting the NARA and its associated facilities; all subsequent schedules in the following months are affected.

This year’s shutdown was extremely annoying to researchers, as they underwent a shutdown that seemingly had no end in sight and depended not on serious political bargains, but on the capricious decisions of reckless politicians. In previous years, a government shutdown was not an issue: both sides could straighten out the funding gaps in a few days. Such a shutdown could give relief to our souring eyes that enabled us to scan and focus on the fading scripts on the documents created tens of hundreds of years ago. An excursion in the city where the archives are located is also a good option. The only annoying part is having to pay several additional days charge for Airbnb or motels. How about a shutdown over a week without a predictable end? Going home and only knowing that the government is reopened the moment we arrived back? Staying in our Airbnb houses or motel rooms to wait for the archives to reopen while spending 50-100 dollars per day? This is especially a dilemma to those foreign visitors who must pay thousands of dollars for air travel and invest great effort in getting a U.S. visa.

In December 2017, I scheduled a trip to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Traveling from Pittsburgh to Boston is not cheap by any means, and the cost of living in Boston in December was about 100 dollars per night. When I learned that a government shutdown was looming, I could only focus on the updates from Congress, worrying whether a shutdown would bankrupt me or truncate my research trip. Luckily, the shutdown did not happen then.

Even for domestic researchers who do not need to travel far or spend lots of money to visit archives, the shutdown was still a headache. For faculty members, winter break is a great opportunity for them to conduct any archival research, as they are fully occupied by teaching during the semesters. A shutdown in winter just ruins their plans, and they have to wait until summer — assuming there is not a shutdown then.

For graduate students like me, this was an even worse situation. Students only have a limited and pre-scheduled period to carry out their research in archives. At other times, they must teach courses to finance their stay in graduate school. When such a shutdown unexpectedly happens, they cannot visit archives as planned. Neither could they be immediately assigned a teaching assistantship as those are usually determined months in advance. They were thus stranded on campus without payment. Certainly, students did — and are supposed to — do research in local archives for another part of their dissertation or begin writing with whatever they have. However, this was just a temporary solution when faced with a shutdown that seemed to have no end in sight. How about the students who were at the initial stage of their research (with few primary sources at hand) or whose dissertation depends almost exclusively on federal records?

I feel very lucky as I had finished all my research in the NARA system in 2017 and 2018. I could not imagine what I would do had I scheduled all my research in the national archives and presidential libraries in this year. My graduation would certainly have been delayed. This shutdown certainly foiled my scheduled trip to the National Personnel Records Center this January.