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Monday, June 05, 2023 — Houston, TX

Rice should allow more than 8% of graduate students to eat at campus serveries

Photo courtesy Xin Tan

By Xin Tan     1/24/23 10:14pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

Everyday, many graduate students are struggling with meals, because Rice offers very limited on-campus servery dining opportunities for them. Many students have expressed concern over this policy including Yajie Liu, a bioengineering Ph.D. student. Her day is filled with coursework, research and mentoring undergraduates in the lab. Though Yajie is on campus from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, she enjoys her busy life. This semester, she applied for the graduate meal plan but failed to get selected. She is very disappointed and has to spend extra time and effort preparing affordable meals herself. The on-campus graduate meal plan is very important to student life, Ph.D. students in particular. Rice should expand the on-campus meal plans to cater to the demand of increasing graduate students.  

In 2023, Rice hosts 3998 graduate students, but the school has only provided 300 on-campus servery lunch meal plans. In total, only 1 out 12 graduate students can get this meal plan. Applying for the meal plan is now even more competitive than applying to attend Rice. Although Rice is known for undergraduate education, graduate students have played an indispensable part in the undergraduate experience. The tuition from the master’s programs has sponsored faculty hires in a number of departments. The Ph.D. students play the role of class TA and research mentorship to help undergraduates succeed. Besides, many Ph.D. students stay on campus day to night working on their own research.  Allowing them to dine on campus could greatly facilitate their work and life. There is indeed a legitimate demand for all graduate students to have more dinner and lunch options on campus.

For many years, the Graduate Student Association has fought to increase the on-campus dining options for graduate students. In a conversation I had with a GSA offficer, I learned that the biggest resistance to expanding graduate meal plans comes from undergraduates. A long time ago, when Rice’s graduate student body was much smaller, GSA and Student Association reached an agreement to provide a small number of meal plans to graduate students, because many undergraduates seemed to be afraid that the graduate students might ‘take over’ college commons if they have access. The number of meal plans has had a very limited increase since then. One of the main arguments against expanding meal plans is that giving graduate students access to the commons dining is equivalent to giving undergraduates free access to Ph.D. students’ offices. However, this is purely distorted thinking. Ph.D. students’ office/lab is a private work place full of research equipment, and it is analogous to the student’s dorm rather than college commons, which is a multi-purpose public space. Most importantly, there’s no incentive for graduate students to stay in the undergraduate commons beyond mealtime. Ph.D. students have their office/lab, and master’s students also have study areas in respective departments, let alone the library and student apartments. To make an analogy, the deep-[off campus] senior undergrads would occasionally come to campus for meals, but they would barely show up other times. Why do we assume graduate students will be more attached to undergraduate commons and take up the space more than OC students? Rice is proud of its inclusiveness, and many graduate and undergraduate students are also classmates in cross-listed courses. Nobody should feel bothered when some graduate students spend 20 minutes having a servery meal inside the commons. After all, Rice is not a liberal arts college but a research university. If both undergraduate and graduate students can share the classroom, gym room and study room, why not the dining room?

The cost of living in Houston has risen a lot in the last three years, and on-campus dining in the servery is the most affordable and healthiest food option to support graduate students. Last year, Rice offered the first-ever dinner plan to graduate students via the Whoo Deli attached to South Servery, but the dining window starts at 7:45 p.m., which is significantly later than the common dining schedule in the USA. The demand of undergraduates also makes some sense. To compensate for using the commons, the school could charge an additional $0.5 for every graduate meal, and this money would go to every college government for activity funds, especially for Beer Bike & Orientation Week. If Rice could just expand the meal plan to 400 with 75 meals for both lunch and dinner, this would generate $30,000 per semester to support undergraduates’ activities. Rice undergraduates have always aspired to address global issues, and they have spent lots of effort in making on-campus dining more environmentally friendly. It shouldn’t be difficult to also address some on-campus issues and make the servery dining more graduate-friendly.

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