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Maryna
Major: English Interpretation
Status: Editor

I´m from Ukraine...

Being a Teaching Assistant in the USA.
Maryna Bazylevych

So you made it. Now that you got an official Teaching Assistantship offer from your university, you probably have more questions than you did before you applied. At least I felt this way when late at night checking my e-mail I was struck by the TA offer letter from State University of New York at Albany, Anthropology Department.
First of all, a lot of questions you might have depend on whether or not you have been to the US before. If you have not, you might feel a little more confused than others, but don’t worry, it is not that hard as it seems to be.

When I came to Albany, I felt a little lost like many of us would – unknown town and not a single human being who would care for you, in addition, New York State is so much different from Indiana, where I had one year experience as an FSA undergrad exchange student.
Even such a simple thing as getting from the airport to the hotel seems to be a barrier. Well, be ready to spend some money on cab, if you, like me, did not arrange with anybody from your department to pick you up and help to check in to the hotel. It will costs you around 15-17$ depending on how far your hotel is. In the hotel always ask for student discounts, even if you don’t have your student ID yet, letter of admission might be enough. Look for a hotel for about 50-60$ a night, it is possible to find plenty of those in the US. Anyways, money is another very important topic, especially for a TA whose living expenses scholarship usually does not exceed 12,000$ a year, and often it is around 8,000$, thus you should be prepared to save and think twice before going out to eat. Most probably your cooking skills will unexpectedly boost!

When you get to your department, go talk to the secretary first. The secretary of my department was really nice, as American school officials usually are, and led me through all formalities and paperwork. As a graduate student, you will most probably have your own mailbox and desk at the graduate students’ room, plus as a TA you will have your office! I share my office with other two TAs, and most of the time we are not at the office at the same time, so you might get to have the whole room to yourself! You need office so that students from the class where you will be a TA, could come to see you at your office hours. Normally TAs have 2-3 office hours a week, which is not a big deal, and usually students don’t hurry to come to your office. The thing is that TAs are usually assigned to large classes (70 – 150 and more students), so students mostly take those classes as general requirements and don’t care so much as to spare their precious time on talking to a TA. Office hours are very likely to be one of your easiest TA responsibilities, during which you will basically do your own homework.

Another question many people have is what the difference between a graduate assistant and a teaching assistant is. As far as I know, the difference is only in the title which is necessary for the university to get funds for our tuition waivers and living expenses scholarships. At least in humanities and social sciences, TAs and GAs do the same type of work.

Each semester TAs are assigned to different classes and different professors depending on the University schedule. Actually your “fate” is in the hands of the professor to whose class you are assigned, but normally they understand the load that TAs have as any other grad students, and don’t “kill” you with tons of work. What I had to do this semester was visit all classes, take good notes in case some students who were absent or who have disabilities need to copy them, take attendance, keep the classroom quiet, be present at office hours, run some errands for the professor and grade papers and exams. The last is the most challenging and important thing you will do as a TA. In order to grade a paper, you need to make all the readings assigned to class, and discuss with your professor what s/he is looking for in the papers.
I found it helpful to make a little checklist of the points possible to get in the paper and just see what percentage the student got. Exams are easier than papers. In my class students did them on bubble sheets (like paper-based TOEFL exams), and all I had to do is bring to them to special office where they run them on machines and pick up the results later.

Now, TA officially has 20 hours of work per week, but usually you don’t have to work that much. I had to work around 6 hours per week, but, of course, it takes more time to get all reading for the class done and especially to grade papers. So my schedule was pretty flexible, like all TAs’. Another thing is that there are two types of classes you might be assigned to – classes with discussion section and regular classes. Discussion section is one hour a week when you meet the class without your professor and work on either the material s/he gives you or develop your own materials. I have not had discussion sections yet, so I cannot tell more, but usually department does not assign first year graduates for discussion sections, especially foreigners, since they understand that we need more time to adjust.

Now a couple of words everybody worries about: What do I get if I am a TA? From my experience, it is not just milk and honey, but you get enough to survive and have some fun. TAs get tuition waiver and living expenses scholarship, which vary form University to University. In my case my department covers around 10,000$ a year for tuition, however I still have to pay University fees, Comprehensive Service Fee, and Grad Organization Fee. These are the money the University charges students for using the library, electricity, maintenance fees, computer labs, being a member of the graduate students’ organization (it is obligatory), etc. You might find yourself a little shocked once you get the invoice from student accounts like I did. Even thought department pays a lot of money for you, University still finds its way to charge you for something. It is not big money, don’t worry, but around 300$ per semester.
Another thing is taxes. Ukraine, where I am from, has no tax treaty that would make TAs exempt from tax responsibilities. We only have this privilege for students with fellowships and contract workers. Thus, each paycheck I am charged the full amount of fees, which are considerable. From a paycheck of 500$, the University charges around 70$ in tax for students from Ukraine. Thus, when your school tells you the amount of your living expenses stipend, be prepared that you won’t see some of these moneys. Hope I did not scare anybody away by these financial realities!

Last words to future TAs – being a TA is cool. It looks perfectly well on your resume, it gives you tons of experience which you will value a lot when you are looking for job, it brings you closer to your faculty and students, it pays for your education! Even though being a TA is not just a piece of cake, it is not that hard. I think of being a TA just as a form of scholarship. Just keep up the work, show some initiative and you’ll have no problems.

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