As an international student at Yale University, working toward a prestigious degree in the School of Management, Grant Mao never bothered much with the activist campaigns on campus. But last spring, he plunged into an unexpected emotional crisis, and stumbled into a longstanding labor struggle as he sought to defend his educational future.
Mao, a 29 year-old native of Shanghai, saw his high hopes of a world-class education spiral into deep depression. A cascade of academic stress, a breakup with his fiancée, and his mother’s heart attack crushed him as he struggled through coursework. Mao’s mental-health crisis, which led to a six-day hospitalization, was not uncommon on Yale’s pressure-cooker campus, but resulted in unusually devastating consequences: Instead of looking toward recovery and resuming his studies last spring, he was expelled and, with his immigration status jeopardized, threatened with deportation.
Now, Yale’s Graduate Employee Student Organization (GESO), the UNITE HERE!–affiliated labor group that Yale graduate employees have been trying to turn into an official union for over a decade, has rallied behind Mao and turned his personal crisis into a cause for the whole campus community.
His plight and GESO’s labor battle share a political goal: making Yale a fairer, healthier, and more inclusive academic community for students and workers.
Though Yale’s Mental Health Services system is supposed to provide general psychiatric care for all students and employees, GESO argues that services on campus are deeply inadequate and fraught with bureaucratic barriers. Mao did manage to receive therapy while enrolled, but the academic consequences he suffered, he argues, resulted from incompetence and discrimination.
After struggling through his coursework without realizing his worsening condition, Mao eventually received a professional diagnosis in May—a depressive disorder that likely affected his academic performance. He consulted with the administration in hopes they would make an exception based on his medical circumstances. But he claims Yale unsympathetically insisted that he had not proven his circumstances warranted special accommodation for his poor grades. He was dismissed, and his appeal for leniency was rejected by a faculty review board. “They simply just wanted to get rid of me,” he says.
In Mao’s view, the administration’s decision was colored by “discrimination against my national origin as well as discrimination against my mental illness.” Cultural incompetence and stereotypes based on his Chinese background, he argues, primed administrators to overlook and ignore his situation.