‘For us, it’s really about governance and funding’

GVL / Eric Coulter
Graduate Studies John Stevenson speaks at a Graduate Students meeting

Eric Coulter

GVL / Eric Coulter Graduate Studies’ John Stevenson speaks at a Graduate Student’s meeting

Anya Zentmeyer

Last week, a presentation was given at GSA’s weekly meeting that included specifics about why they believed they needed more representation, and what it would take to create and implement a graduate student governing body.

Graduate concerns

Funding is a primary concern for the graduate students, who only receive less than 3 percent of the money they contribute to GVSU’s Student Life Fund. In the 2009-10 academic year, graduate students contributed $127,563 to the Student Life Fund, but only 2.9 percent of that money, or $3,735 of their total financial contributions, were awarded to registered graduate student organizations. Unregistered graduate organizations rely on fundraising and outside donations to operate and host events.

Currently, the existing Student Senate is composed of a predominately undergraduate governing body; however, GSA has been asserting to the university that the needs of the two different demographics are not always the same in regard to not only the differences in lifestyle and schedules, but also in their needs and their locations, with most undergraduates located at the Allendale Campus and the majority of graduate students at the Pew Campus downtown.

Graduate student Kelly Weir, who is currently involved with GSA and helped to write the initial proposals about different governance models, was a senator on the undergraduate student senate body in 2006-07 during her senior year as an undergrad. As a student who has been on both sides of the table, she said she thinks a separate graduate body is necessary for GVSU moving forward.

“As a student who served on the Student Senate when it was an all-undergraduate body, I don’t think that we had the knowledge or the ability to understand different lifestyles and different issues that graduates have,” Weir said. “I wouldn’t have thought that at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to put myself in the shoes of a graduate student to say I wasn’t feeling represented, but now as a graduate student I look back and I can see how we weren’t really representing them fairly, and weren’t equipped to go and make decisions based on their needs.”

Of the 24,662 students enrolled at GVSU this fall, 13.9 percent of the student body – or 3,426 students – are graduate students. Graduate students over 30 comprise 44 percent of their population, while only 1 percent are under 22 years old.

Reflective representation

Yasha Nath, president of GSA, said the creation of a graduate governing body was called for by the Higher Learning Commission back in 1999, when their report stated, “As a group, graduate students and their interests are not apparently represented within the existing student government systems (at Grand Valley State University).” Additionally, Nath said the creation of a graduate governing body helps to fulfill the university’s 2010-15 Strategic Plan objective, which calls for the creation of support services for graduate students by year 2012.

“You know, the thing that everybody maybe don’t necessarily recognize, is that a graduate student has been an undergraduate student, just like you have been a high school student,” Nath said. “So we understand and we’ve lived that life, and now it’s a different life.”

Nick Ryder, vice president of public relations for the Student Senate, said the existing undergraduate senate recognizes the need for more representation.

“I believe that graduate students have unique needs, that are sometimes different from undergraduate students,” Ryder said. “It will be nice to have both sets of voices around the table to ensure that we are representing all of the students’ needs.”

Though the conversation was stalled following the Student Senate’s General Assembly Meeting on Oct. 6, Ryder and Tyson said the group has found more common ground to stand on, and developed a deeper understanding of what each side is asking for.

“I was at the Student Senate meeting where we presented this to them, and the questions that they gave us were legitimate, they are concerned because they’ve run it for this many years, so they want to know, what are we walking in here trying to do?” Tyson said. “I feel like it was very informative on both parts, and for me personally, I didn’t feel any animosity being there. You know, they, again, are just asking the right questions and want to know what we’re trying to do.”

A new model

Currently, both the existing senate and GSA are looking at three different governance models: a unified body wherein the graduate representation would be an arm or committee of the existing Student Senate; a divided model that constitutes an entirely different, independent structure for graduate representation or a mixed, or hybrid, model, which links two independent bodies under an executive committee.

Right now, GSA members, including Tyson and Weir, think that a mixed model would be the most ideal form of governance, since it would facilitate a strong connection between the two bodies.

“We do all go to the same school, we share a lot of the same resources and we do all need to work together,” Weir said.

However, Ryder said Student Senate is not currently advocating one model or the other, but rather, are still in discussion about what the best fit might be.

“We are looking at all three models still, we do not support one over the other at this time because we want to ensure that we pick the right choice for Grand Valley, to ensure that we are advocating for all of the students equally,” he said. “ We are taking a critical look at all three models and also combinations of each model.”

Tyson said GSA has been gaining overwhelming support from the graduate student community. GSA membership numbers have already gone up from about 5 officers to somewhere between 30 and 40 students involved on different levels, whether it’s having a hand in rewriting the constitution, working as a college representative or simply asking what they can do to help.

Moving forward, both the undergraduates from Student Senate and selected members of the GSA will sit down and figure out logistics like which model they should use, as well as begin writing the revised constitution.

Renato Delos Reyes, one of the graduate students who will be working to rewrite the constitution, said since they want the new, all-inclusive senate to be up and running by next fall, they’re trying to expedite the process in order to have the final revised constitution ready by the spring and summer semester.

“I’m happy to see that we’ve been able to move forward on this, that we’ve been able to get administration, Student Senate and the support of all of the graduate students,” Nath said. “For us, it’s really about governance and funding. That’s what it is. It’s nothing more. We have a right to govern our own selves, we necessarily have more experience, more exposure, we have a unique and different group of people from the undergraduate students … So basically, that’s where we are at.”

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