Virginia Luehrsen

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

When graduate students vote in Graduate Student Assembly elections Wednesday and Thursday, they will choose between executive alliances running for the presidential and vice-presidential positions for the first time in the organization’s history. 

In the past, students ran independently, and those elected president and vice president had no say in their partnership.

Presidential candidate Frank Male and running mate Virginia Luehrsen will run in alliance against presidential candidate David Villarreal and running mate Brian Wilkey. Both pairs focus on issues including graduate student tuition policies and the need for increased community involvement. 

Last year, roughly 1,000 of the 11,000 graduate students at UT voted in the elections. 

Villarreal, a history graduate student, said that he and Wilkey would focus on promoting graduate health and self-care, affordable housing, expanding the graduate-student voice, and maximizing graduate student resources.

Villarreal said he chose Wilkey as his running mate because of Wilkey’s desire for efficiency in GSA. Although both candidates each have one year of experience in GSA, Villarreal said his close relationship with Columbia Mishra, the current GSA president, makes him qualified for the position.

“In some ways we’re running as outsiders, which I think is actually a strength of ours,” Villarreal said. “The job of the vice president is to manage and run the assembly meetings, and I thought, in many ways, [Wilkey] is already doing this job, so he would be an ideal candidate to carry over.”

One of the pair’s biggest goals, Villarreal said, is to institute a campaign to promote mental-health awareness. Villarreal, who suffers from narcolepsy, said he understands the challenges of finding resources on-campus for health issues.

“One of the only reasons I learned about disability services was from a friend,” Villarreal said. “People shouldn’t learn about their fundamental rights by word of mouth.”

If elected vice president, Wilkey said he hopes to create a central database for all the resources available to graduate students. Wilkey, a human development and family sciences graduate student, said students approaching him with questions made him realize University services are not well-advertised. 

“Very often those resources are available for graduate students, but they are not promoted and often under-utilized,” Wilkey said.

Villarreal has also been working closely with GSA student affairs director Jaime Puente to write a graduate student bill of rights aimed at creating a baseline minimum stipend to help graduate students cope with the cost of living.

Wilkey said although he has not worked directly on the bill of rights, it is one of the most important things he and Villarreal hope to continue pushing if elected.

“It kind of goes unmentioned because it is priority number one for us,” Wilkey said. “That’s something that affects change at a campus-wide level.”

Wilkey and Villarreal both said their four platform points contribute to their overall goal of increasing representation for graduate students.

According to Wilkey, only about 60 percent of GSA members show up to the assembly’s meetings. 

“We claim to speak as a representative body for all graduate students,” Wilkey said. 

Physics graduate student Frank Male and information studies graduate student Virginia Luehrsen will run on a platform centered on graduate student housing, community, time-to-degree and dismissal procedures. Male and Luehrsen are currently in their third and fourth year as GSA members, respectively. 

Luehrsen said the positive feedback she’s received from her department prompted her to run for the vice-presidential seat, and she asked Male to join her at the top of the ticket.

“I’ve been in [GSA] for so long, and it’s important to me that it stays strong,” Luehrsen said.

The 99-hour rule is one of Male’s main concerns. Currently, if graduate students exceed 99 hours in pursuit of their degrees, they may be subject to out-of-state tuition. 

“Graduate students tend to already live on a shoestring budget so having that happen would just be devastating,” Male said.

Male said he also hopes to expand the current Milestones Agreement Program, which was created to help individual graduate students stay on track for finishing their degree. Male said the current system often notifies students they are being dismissed only several weeks before the end of a semester.

“Because it’s so nebulous, it’s difficult to know how well you’re achieving your goals and working towards graduation,” Male said.

Luehrsen said the duo’s experiences in GSA make them a good combination to help broaden the scope of what the organization can do.

“Between my skill set of navigating with the other legislative student organizations and my ability to network with representatives in other departments, and [Male’s] working with administration, makes a really good combination,” Luehrsen said.

Clarification: Due to an editing error, this story has been updated from its original version. GSA candidate Virginia Luehrsen is in her fourth year as a GSA member. 

After officials announced Thursday that Bastrop residents in the Circle D and KC Estates area could return home to view damages, Austin resident Karen Fergurson accompanies friend to his home. The worst in Texas history, the wildfires in Bastrop have burned more than 34,000 acres and have caused two deaths.

Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana | Daily Texan Staff

A soaked book rested on a table with plain paper towels between every few pages to dry it. Nearby, students and community members removed soot from burned documents with a soft brush and dry rubber sponge.

These demonstrations were part of a workshop the School of Information hosted Sunday to teach volunteers how to salvage documents and potentially help people affected by the wildfires in Central Texas.

School of Information lecturer Karen Pavelka organized the workshop and said the school felt compelled to assist wildfire victims by holding its first public workshop.

“We have faculty who have a lot of experience with disaster preparedness, disaster planning and disaster salvage,” Pavelka said. “If people have wet documents or wet heirlooms or things that are very fragile, we know how to handle them as safely as possible, and we want to help however we can.”

Pavelka led the workshop with Rebecca Elder, adjunct assistant professor in the School of Information, and Virginia Luehrsen, information studies graduate student.

Luehrsen advised volunteers to work in teams to prevent becoming overwhelmed or overworked.

“If you’re with a team, the nice thing is that you can say, ‘Okay, I need a little time out,’ and somebody else can step in and work with that family,” she said. “The family doesn’t feel abandoned, and you don’t feel that all the pressure is on you.”

Jane Bost, associate director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, said losing a home or important personal possessions to a fire is one of the most traumatic and stress-inducing experiences a person can have.

“It totally goes against what you could expect or would be reasonable because it’s such a rare kind of loss,” Bost said. “They have a loss of sense of control of their lives, and it’s almost hard to imagine.”

Bost said the ability to salvage important personal items from the wildfires could comfort people by giving them a connection to the time before the fire.

“That could help people just to have something, some kind of object that was valued in their lives that’s associated with positive memories,” she said.

Bost advised those affected by the wildfires to reach out for help. She also suggested positive distraction activities and focusing on daily goals to manage stress.

“It’s hard to do, but I think it’s really important to set the goals for ‘What do I get through for today? What can I accomplish for today?’ not trying to figure it all out, because it can be very, very overwhelming,” she said.

Information studies graduate student Carlos Duarte said he looks forward to using the knowledge he gained in the workshop to help people affected by the recent wildfires.

“I think a lot of people assume once something’s wet or smoke damaged, they have to just throw it away,” Duarte said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince them otherwise.”