Manuel Gonzalez

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series about the legislative student organizations at UT and their transition to new leadership over the next few weeks.

Michael Redding describes being the new president of Graduate Student Assembly as kind of like going on a first date. When he started, Redding said, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

Redding and his vice president Joel Simmons take the reins from two-term president Manuel Gonzalez during a time of great change for the organization. Gonzalez said next year GSA will need to focus on building its membership base and find ways to engage graduate students to participate in the organization, a task that has always been a particular challenge.

“Our biggest goal for the year is [making sure] GSA and grad students aren’t the forgotten quarter of campus,” said Redding, an information studies graduate student and Texas Student Media contract employee. “A lot of decisions are focused on undergrads and then it’s ‘oh, there’s graduate students.’”

He said he wants to work on implementing domestic partner benefits for graduate students to increase retention, improve access to graduate student housing, continue the new graduate career services program implemented under Gonzalez and connect the graduate student community.

Next year, GSA is facing a possible $10,000 cut from the Student Services Budget Committee to their operating budget.

Redding said the committee wants the organization to reform its stipends for executive officers, which comprise $31,366 out of their $62,839 budget. Redding said the stipends are small and help officers financially. He is giving up a teaching assistant position to dedicate his time to the GSA and therefore losing health insurance, a monthly salary and a tuition rebate.

Out of the three legislative student organizations, GSA has the smallest member base and receives the least amount of money from student fees. Each of the organizations is its own body and represents student voice in various areas, such as student life and academic affairs. SG and Senate are mostly made up of undergraduates, while graduate student representatives make up the GSA. Each branch is independent of the other, although collaboration between the three has increased over the years.

Gonzalez said GSA mainly focused on internal reform to address the challenges within the organization. The assembly during his second term produced fewer than 20 pieces of legislation, including conflict of interest and officer stipend regulation. In addition to internal reform, Gonzalez said his administration worked to make the graduate orientation more open, become a more prominent member of the Student Advocates for Graduate Education and create a graduate student career services.

Despite all three organizations being sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, Gonzalez said GSA is still not up to par with Senate and SG because there are still some standing committees where graduate student opinion isn’t guaranteed.

Anthony Bendinelli, a fifth year physics graduate student and assistant instructor, said while he was aware GSA is meant to give graduate students a voice, he didn’t know enough about the organization to get involved. Bendinelli said graduate students face many challenges such as building relationships with professors as well as balancing classes and research. Bendinelli said he does not remember receiving any emails from GSA alerting him to what the organization did and does not have time to get involved in GSA now.

“The GSA is a level of commitment,” Bendinelli said. “In some respects it goes back to trying to do research, do classes and teach. I wish I would have known about the GSA when I was a second or third year as opposed to now when I’m involved with my research.”

John Dalton, associate dean for graduate studies, said the organization puts a lot of effort into issues that impact students financially and which affect academic student employees, such as teaching assistants. Dalton said one the group’s biggest accomplishments has been getting the University to review its tuition assistance benefit program, which gives discount tuition to teaching assistants and assistant instructors. Dalton said it’s likely the University will revise the way it categorizes this benefit to make the benefit tax-free.

“Their biggest challenge has been to get representation on various University-wide committees,” Dalton said. “This has been a long-lasting issue and continues to be a challenge.” 

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: GSA elects officers, focuses on engaging participation

Chemistry graduate student and member of the Texas Running Club Mark Amann crosses the finish line first at the Graduate Student Assembly 5K Sunday morning with a time of 17 minutes and 16 seconds. The race raised approximately $2,800 towards providing funds for graduate students to travel to conferences where they can develop their skills professionally and network. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Wang)

Running up and down the hills of the 40 Acres proved to be a challenging homecoming for UT alumna Cristina Bilder, who ran in the Graduate Student Assembly 5K to help raise money for professional development.

“It is horrible, this 5K had the most hills of any 5K I have ever run — I felt like it is all uphill the entire time,” Bilder said, who won first place in the women’s division. “But it is fun, I’m glad I did it.”

The GSA 5K, which followed a route across UT’s hilly campus, was held Sunday morning. Close to 200 students, faculty, alumni and Austinites gathered at Gregory Plaza, and afterwards GSA treated participants to food and massages as well as music provided by KVRX. GSA President Manuel Gonzalez said the funds from the event will go towards providing money for graduate students to travel to conferences, which helps them develop their
skills professionally.

“Ultimately there are limited funds in the department that graduate students can tap into, so this provides us an additional pool of money that graduate students can compete for in order to fully enhance their graduate student experience,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said having money for traveling is important because while UT is leader in research, graduate students need to get off of the campus to better prepare for the professional world.

“That research only goes so far when its limited to the 40 Acres,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why it’s important for us as an institution to interact with colleagues, not from just across the nation but from across the world.”

Armando Salinas, financial director of GSA, said the event brought in about $2,800 and will help graduate students travel to conferences, which is an important part of finding a job after graduating. Salinas said the average costs for a graduate student to attend a conference in the field of basic sciences is between $800-$1,200 depending on the location.

“Participating in these kind of things is essential career-wise,” Salinas said.

However, Gonzalez said funds for graduate students to attend conferences and gain experience are growing short.

“Funds are becoming more and more competitive at the departmental level because they have less access to funds by virtue of budget issues that we’re currently facing,” Gonzalez said. “This is one way the GSA is filling the void that is being left by depleted professional develop budgets.”

Salinas said the funds gained from the GSA 5K this year are going into a currently unnamed GSA travel award.

Beyond providing for funding, Gonzalez said the event also is a way to help isolated graduate students socialize.

“The graduate climate survey from last year indicated that one of the big concerns that graduate students often have is too often they feel isolated in their classroom environments or in their lab environments,” Gonzalez said.

“This event and additional social events is something we do to help break that.”

Printed on Monday, April 2, 2012 as: Alumni, students run for funding

 The Student Government president expects to start appointing representatives this week to fill four available graduate student seats in an organization lacking in graduate student members.

The student presidents of SG, Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly said they must work together to best confront graduate student concerns. As GSA’s influence grows, SG and Senate leaders look to improve representation for graduate students.

SG President Natalie Butler said she does not know if all four seats will be appointed at once, but the appointed graduate students will serve out the rest of their term until this April. These appointments would add to the two current graduate student representatives for the School of Law and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Butler said she believes recruitment for the positions has been difficult because of the rigorous workload graduate students have. She said discrepancies between undergraduate and graduate representation is to be expected.

“The undergraduates are the culture of UT,” Butler said. “Undergraduates drive tradition, capacity and the number of bodies that you see on campus more than graduate students.”

Butler said SG positions, including her own, still represent graduate student concerns despite being filled by undergraduate students.

“I take my job in representing graduate students very seriously,” Butler said. “I think I need to be held accountable for them.”

Senate President Carisa Nietsche said there are a few graduate councils in Senate, but the representation distribution is not ideal.

“It’s really a representation nightmare,” Nietsche said.
Nietsche said other issues include Senate’s disproportionate focus on academic affairs that often apply to undergraduate concerns.

“Graduate students feel like they’re voting on legislation, but it doesn’t pertain to them,” Nietsche said.

She said Senate is discussing whether to increase graduate student representation or to continue sending graduate issues to GSA.

“We’re working on seeing whether we should go all in or all out,” Nietsche said.

Last year, the University officially recognized GSA as a legislative body affiliated with the Office of the Dean of Students.

GSA President Manuel Gonzalez said UT graduate students are often an afterthought.

“I would not say that this marginalization is intentional,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s a byproduct of being a smaller subset of the University.”

Gonzalez said graduate student engagement in student governance is increasing and can elevate awareness of the issues graduate students face.

The election process for GSA representatives is up to the graduate advisor of the department. About 65 representatives form the assembly that has room for a total of 119 representatives. Some departments have more representatives depending on the number of graduate students.

“The reality is being a graduate student can be a completely different experience in another field,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why it’s important to have as much representation as possible.”

However, about 30 out of about 100 departments do not have representation, Gonzalez said. Despite the openings, he said the current size of the assembly can hinder progress.

“We have such a large assembly size that sometimes it can be difficult to get all graduate students on the same page and holding them accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said there will always be disputes about which organization should cover certain issues, but the strength of the three organizations is that they are structured to foster collaboration through legislation and resource sharing.

“Graduate students should know that they have the opportunity to voice any concerns they may have and suggest solutions to issues that may arise,” Gonzalez said.