Vietnamese American lecturer lived in a tent for two years while pursuing her PhD in the UK

Vietnamese American lecturer lived in a tent for two years while pursuing her PhD in the UK
Carl Samson
November 4, 2021
A Vietnamese American academic battled the cold for two years when she ended up homeless while pursuing a doctorate and teaching classes in the U.K.
How it happened: Aimée Lê, who obtained her Ph.D. in 2018, was forced to live in a tent after facing a rent increase in her third year of study at Royal Holloway, University of London. She revealed her plight in a recent interview with The Guardian.
  • Lê received an annual fellowship of £16,000 ($21,580) for three years from Royal Holloway to pursue her Ph.D. in English and Practice-Based Research. She also had an extra scholarship from the U.S. for her first year.
  • As an international student, Lê had to pay £8,000 ($10,790) a year to Royal Holloway. This left her with £12,000 ($16,190) a year to live on, which includes her salary for teaching.
  • Unfortunately, the cheap postgraduate hall Lê had been living in closed for renovations at the end of her second year. She was left facing a rent increase of £3,000 ($4,050) a year, which she simply could not afford.
  • Seeing no other option, Lê borrowed a tent from a friend, which she called home for the next two years. She showered at the university and kept her books in the postgraduate office.
  • “It was cold. It was a small one-person tent, which meant after a bit it did get warmer,” Lê told The Guardian. “But there were days when I remember waking up and my tent was in a circle of snow. When I wasn’t doing my Ph.D. or other work I was learning how to chop wood or start a fire.”
  • Lê said she led a double life, keeping her living situation from the university and her students over fears that it might damage her professional reputation. She also kept it a secret from her parents, telling them she was living in an ecological farm.
  • Despite her struggles, Lê remained focused. She said she got good reviews from students, and at one time, marked 300 GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in a hotel lobby. “I even organized an international conference. I was working to a very high standard and I was incredibly focused,” she said.
The big picture: Lê’s homelessness reflects casualization in the U.K.’s higher education workforce. Research by the University and College Union (UCU) shows that a third of academics are on fixed-term contracts, with Asian women being the most likely group to find themselves on such agreements (44%).
  • “Many people are still shocked to learn that higher education is one of the most casualised sectors in the British economy,” UCU President Vicky Blake told The Guardian. “There are at least 75,000 staff on insecure contracts: workers who are exploited, underpaid, and often pushed to the brink by senior management teams relying on goodwill and a culture of fear.”
  • The union has threatened a strike in the coming weeks. Members are demanding a £2,500 ($3,370) pay increase across all pay points, an end to race, gender and disability pay injustice, elimination of zero-hours and other precarious contracts, a solution to tackle unmanageable workloads, and the withdrawal of pension cuts, according to the BBC.
  • Lê believes her students assumed that she was paid fairly for her work. “I think that is what students everywhere assume: that we are lecturers on proper contracts. I did tell them that wasn’t the case, but I thought telling them I was living outside was a step too far,” she said.
  • After getting her Ph.D., Lê found herself tutoring schoolchildren and working at a botanical garden. She then landed a fixed two-year contract with Exeter University to teach creative writing.
  • Lê is currently unemployed and lives with her parents, but her job-hunting continues. “I don’t know what is going to happen. I’ve had lots of interviews, including one at Cambridge recently, but I started looking in April while I was still employed. I feel really nervous,” she told The Guardian.
Featured Image via Laurie Nevay (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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