Representative Barbara Lee honored two UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidates for their efforts to halt a Republican tax proposal that would have forced graduate students to pay taxes on the value of their education.
By Will Kane
Barbara Lee, a Democrat who represents Berkeley and graduated with a master’s from the school in 1975, said during a surprise ceremony on Saturday that Vetri Velan, in his third graduate year of studying physics, and Kathy Shield, in her second year of a nuclear energy Ph.D. program, had both “mobilized graduate students around the country against the greatest tax scam in American history.”
Lee recognized the pair by entering a statement about their work into the official Congressional Record on Saturday.
As soon as Velan, who researches dark matter, and Shield, who studies actinide elements like Berkelium, learned in November that the House of Representatives had passed a tax reform package that would make graduate students pay taxes on tuition credits earned by working and doing research, they began calculating the details.
Velan figured out he’d see a 4 percent drop in his after-tax income, a significant blow to his budget in the high-cost Bay Area.
“Once I realized how bad the situation was, I decided to play around and calculate for a few other scenarios,” Velan said on Monday. “My original motivation for this was to post it on Facebook or social and get a few people to call their representatives.”
But Shield had the idea to turn Velan’s equations into a Google Doc calculator that any graduate student could use to analyze the bill’s impact on his or her finances. The idea went viral.
Soon the spreadsheet was being visited by thousands of graduate students across the country, many of whom were realizing the proposed tax plan might be enough to push them out of academia.
Shield, who eventually hopes to work in international energy policy, said she wanted to give graduate students the ability to figure out for themselves what would happen if the tax bill passed.
“As a scientist, I want to provide data in terms of trends, but politicians want stories,” Shield said. “So, with the calculator we gave people a way to find their own numbers, which they used to find their own story which they then used to contact their representatives.”
Many graduate students organized rallies or other demonstrations. Shield and Velan alone organized “graduate students at UC Berkeley and around the country to contact 87 offices in 18 states to express outrage over this provision,” Lee said.
The plan to tax the value of graduate tuition credits as stipends was eventually stripped from the final tax bill, which was signed by President Donald Trump in December.
Lee said Velan and Shield deserved some credit for the idea’s defeat.
“Because of their great work this harmful provision was removed from the final bill,” Lee said in her statement. “Vetri and Kathy have saved thousands of dollars for graduate students across the country, and have ensured many hard-working students will continue to have access to graduate school.”