Grad students make major strides
By ANDREW THAGARD
Assistant News Editor
Something has changed within the Graduate Student Union (GSU), the organization representing Notre Dame's 1,500 graduate students, according to its president Gabriela Burgos. There is an energy in the room and, she said, a synergy between the GSU, their advisors and the academic departments.
"When we talk to graduate students we get a sense that faith has been restored," agreed vice president Kishori Deshpande agreed. "To us, this is more important than anything else."
Winds of change
When Burgos and Deshpande took office last April, they inherited a representative body from outgoing president Mark Buckles already undergoing change. Formed in 1969 to represent the needs of the University's graduate students, the GSU often had a reputation of being ineffective — more prone to complaining than taking action.
Burgos and the members of the organization's eight committees are working to update this reputation, along with the union's constitution, organization and relationship with the University community.
During the summer, the organization initiated an overhaul of their constitution under the direction of Burgos and Suzann Gallagher, elections, credentials and procedures secretary. The results led to the formation of the healthcare and publicity and promotions committees. The GSU has continued to make changes to its constitution throughout the year to better define the role of each committee and to increase the body's productivity, according to Deshpande.
"The constitution was too concerned with procedure," Burgos added. "We wanted to get stuff done."
The group is also brainstorming about ways to increase the productivity of their monthly meetings. Burgos says that she wants to make the meetings more interactive and improve communication between the different committees. She is considering allotting each committee a portion of one meeting to highlight their recent work.
Reforming health care
GSU's most notable progress has occurred in reforming the University's health care policy for graduate students, an issue that has been discussed since 1995.
When Burgos and Deshpande took over in April, results from a healthcare survey commissioned by Buckles were filtering back to the GSU. The results indicated the need for a more comprehensive University subsidized policy.
"When I was elected, the graduate students' first suggestion was work for health care," Burgos said.
"There was a definite discontent among the students," Deshpande added.
Once the GSU created the health care committee to address this discontent, committee chairperson Adrienne Minerick, who considers herself a victim of the current policy's shortcomings, began investigating. The committee has been instrumental in offering short-term solutions and working toward the establishment of a final resolution. Working with Ingrid Villa-Real, publicity and promotions chairman, Minerick published pamphlets designed to assist graduate students in navigating the current health insurance plan and established a discount eye care program with Optical One.
In October, Minerick researched and published a report on the health care issue with Burgos and Deshpande. The 100-page report assessed the current situation, compared the University's plan with other schools and contained faculty surveys and student testimonials. The group presented their findings to Notre Dame's Board of Trustees that month.
"We spent a lot of time — two weeks straight — working on the report and doing the research," Minerick said. "We thought we would be convincing them [the Board of Trustees] that they ought to be doing this [adopting the new subsidized policy] and they were already asking us the specifics."
The GSU plans to make a similar presentation to the University's officers in March. They are confidant that the idea will be approved and that the new policy will be available within a year and a half once the logistics are worked out, according to Minerick.
The GSU has also taken steps to assist graduate students find jobs after earning their degrees.
The organization is working with the Career Center to aid students in the job search. As a result, the Career Center has sponsored a series of workshops geared toward assisting graduate students in the corporate and academic worlds. Workshops organized this year educated students on corporate etiquette, resume preparation, job search strategies and provided information for international students.
"The fact that we established communication with the Career Services is really productive," Deshpande said.
The GSU is working with Peter Lombardo of the Alumni Association to foster connections with graduate school alumni as well. The groups want to host a graduate student career fair in the future.
quality of life
The GSU has continued to sponsor social events for graduate students this semester. The organization has traditionally hosted parties but this year, committee chairpersons Jennifer Anthony and Miriam Rainbird created a more diverse social calendar, Burgos said.
Social events include cultural and athletic activities. The organization recently sponsored a wine tasting festival and organized a trip to Chicago for a baseball game over the summer.
The union also has an intellectual life committee led by Kari Foster that provides funding for graduate students to attend academic conferences. The committee is working to make the application process smoother and may increase funding for the next academic year.
Long term, the GSU wants to increase graduate students' social opportunities on campus with a student union center. Quality of life committee chairman Tom Scheiding is currently conducting a survey to determine the level of interest for the center and what students feel it should contain.
"Graduate students expressed that they really need a space to socialize and work on projects," Burgos said. "The graduate school is seriously looking into this problem."
Looking toward the future
This semester, Burgos and Deshpande plan to continue to work on these projects. The GSU is also negotiating with OIT to establish a service contract for the graduate student computer cluster. They plan to host a spring orientation for new students as well.
Despite their success, Burgos and Deshpande do not intend to seek reelection in April, citing a need to devote more time to graduate research. Minerick will also move on to spend more time on research after her term ends. All three, however, expressed satisfaction in the direction the organization has taken.
"Traditionally the Graduate Student Union has been involved primarily in social activities," Burgos said. "Now it's not just social — it's healthcare, its about career services, it's about quality of life and professional life."
The three, however, expressed concern for the direction of GSU once new officers are elected.
"It's frustrating because this is a one year appointment," Minerick said. "What if people next year aren't as productive? What happens if all our work falls apart?"
Despite this concern, the current leaders are poised to aid in a smooth transition and plan to volunteer with GSU next year. Donna Frahn, the organization's administrative assistant, will also be available to help, according to Burgos.
For all the positive publicity the more productive GSU has received, it seems unlikely the University community will allow it to regain its former reputation.
"It's a strong organization," James Powell, associate dean of the Graduate School said. "They represent the University very well. It's much easier to work with an organization that can articulate and accomplish their goals well."
All News Stories for Wednesday, January 23, 2002