GSA works to better student experience, focuses on health

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For those who haven’t experienced it, graduate education is … indescribable. I don’t mean in the “it’s a form of rapture and ecstasy that’s indescribable” way. I’m just not sure how to put this experience or its value into words. There are so many moving parts in graduate education that explaining various aspects of the graduate experience is far easier than giving someone a comprehensive description. Vice-President of Student Affairs Gage Paine recently framed this frustration well; she said, “It’s like a fish attempting to describe water. It just…is.” This lack of description for graduate education frustrates me because earlier this year I took on the mantle of the presidency of the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) — an organization that dedicates itself to adding more value the experience of the 13,000 graduate and professional students at UT Austin. How, though, do we determine the value of these experiences?  There is a desire to boil down the value that comes from of the moving parts that compose a graduate education to a dollar amount, but, as both undergraduate and graduate students can attest, the value of our experience is not the money we make after we graduate.    

Since coming into office, the Assembly has undertaken some fantastic projects, some of which are on-going.  Perhaps that which we are most proud of at the moment is the revision of our governing documents.  For years our governing documents were amended in isolation to help address a problem the GSA faced and when I took office, they were in complete disarray – contradicting each other and making the business of improving graduate student lives a bit more challenging than it already is.  Over the course of the summer, seven dedicated members tackled these documents, and, after much discussion with the Assembly and administrators, the documents were approved.  We now have a solid foundation from which the Assembly can build.

Our members and directors work hard to connect to the wide set of needs that graduate students have.  Just recently, the GSA undertook our second annual Graduate Student Professional Development Week (GPDW). Four nights of speakers and panels were dedicated to helping graduate and professional students, no matter their career path, prepare for the next step in Academia, Industry, Non-Profits.  The events were well-attended and rewarding to participants, moderators, and guests with many thanks to our Academic Affairs Director, Deepjyoti Deka, and Programs Director, José La Torre. 

We have sent a delegation to the fall summit of the Student Advocates for Graduate Educate (SAGE). The delegates shared best practices with Graduate Assemblies at peer institutions, and planned its agenda to take to Washington D.C. and discussed the issues facing graduate students nationwide.   

The Assembly has great plans for the rest of its legislative session. We have a surplus budget at the moment and hope to use it to fund as many graduate student organizations and award as many travel grants as we possibly can.  We have several programs to connect graduate students all over campus with social hours and research collaborations.  We will establish two semi-autonomous agencies, the Graduate Student Health Agency (GSHA) and Entrepreneurship and Industry Agency (EIA). The GSHA will help graduate students navigate the very complicated business of health insurance (school provided or not) and get access to good mental health and medical services.  The EIA will help graduate students connect their expertises to local business and startups, and more importantly, help the GSA become self-sustaining.  The EIA hopes to establish sponsorships and begin the process of creating an endowment. 

The GSA is doing wonderful things, attempting to improve whatever the graduate student experience may be.  This year, we’re going to attempt to study and explain the value of graduate education.  We want to add the intangibles to the “dollars and cents” perspective of value and articulate what it really means to be a graduate student.  The Graduate Student Assembly is going to take the lead on what we hope becomes a national discussion and truly define the value of the graduate student experience.  The moment when a TA helps a student to make a breakthrough or the discussion with an advisor that will lead to paradigm shifts in your field – these are the moments that should come to mind when we talk about the value of graduate education, not just the profitably of a department.  We want to change the national discussion about the importance of what we do, while simultaneously thanking the institutions that train and support our work. 

After all, although graduate students, as a whole, don’t always identify with their graduate institution in the same way they identify with their undergraduate institutions, I believe every graduate Longhorn at UT Austin wants to live up to the maxim of starting here and changing the world.  

Wilkey is the president of the Graduate Student Assembly. He is a human development and family sciences graduate student from Vandalia, Ohio.