Q&A: Council co-chairs discuss goals and challenges of graduate students

For more than a year, the Graduate Council has increased its programming, advocacy and awareness as the representative body for graduate students. Comprised of an executive team and 17 representatives chosen by the various professional and graduate divisions, the council has been heavily involved in planning and executing programming aimed at the graduate community while also serving as an intermediary between graduate students and the administration.

UChicago News recently spoke with the new Graduate Council co-chairs Joseph Dang, second-year MBA student at Chicago Booth, and Nick Williams, fifth-year PhD student in the Division of Physical Sciences, as they reflect on the past year and give insight on what to expect this upcoming school year.

The Graduate Council has been fully seated for a little over a year after a long hiatus. How has the council’s first year gone, from your perspective?

Joseph Dang: In 2016-17 there was a record number of graduate students engaging with the graduate council and its activities. For example, we saw an upwards of 62 percent increase in attendance at our social events; both the travel and finance funds awarded three times the amount of last year’s totals to students; and we successfully upgraded our infrastructure to meet that demand. In addition, investments in quarterly public financial reporting, community-building initiatives and web infrastructure have yielded better relationships with members, administrators and the Board of Trustees.

Nick Williams: As we look forward, we plan to invest in more robust marketing and communications to not only reach populations that traditionally haven’t taken advantage of resources that the graduate council has to offer, but also to create a pipeline of contributors to council committees and leadership.

What do you see as some of the important issues facing graduate and professional students on campus?

Dang: With UChicago’s 10,000-plus graduate students spread across 12 divisions, communication across and connections between students are challenges for both the council and the students to whom it speaks. From a feedback survey run by Megan Beck, last year’s graduate liaison to the Board of Trustees, we’ve seen that mental health and wellness is a silent struggle that many students deal with.

Williams: We’ve also received feedback that cross-divisional connections for groups (minorities, parents, international students) facing similar challenges, as well as those looking to collaborate on innovations, have been lacking.

How do you envision the role of the Graduate Council in helping to address the concerns of graduate students across the University?

Williams: We believe that the Graduate Council can alleviate students’ current challenges with the following three methods:

  • Programming
    • Internally create small events to engage diverse groups of students
    • Help student groups learn how to create new events
    • Continue to engage students in large, popular quarterly socials
  • Advocacy
    • Represent graduate student interests to the administration to improve graduate student life and ensure high-quality student services
    • Gather student feedback on a diverse set of issues
    • Use connections at peer institutions to understand alternative approaches to common problems
  • Communications
    • Build an information pipeline through active council representatives to inform students about events/initiatives
    • Leverage council’s website as a hub and structured guide to student services at the University
    • Launch interactive lunch and learn series with council leadership at each graduate school and division

What do you see as your biggest challenges?

Williams: Meeting the increased demand of an eager student body is becoming our biggest challenge. From physical space at socials to workflows for gathering, evaluating and reimbursing funds, we will need to evolve the current infrastructure to handle future needs, which we are doing.

Dang: Nick is exactly right. Also, from a talent perspective, these last few years have seen excited students step up to the plate. Continuing our cohesiveness as the council and its committees get bigger and creating the leadership pipeline and institutional memory to ensure future growth will be a key focus for us.

Williams: To effect change beyond our immediate graduate student government, we will work to build capacity as a voice to UChicago administration on behalf of students through a collaborative effort of perspective gathering, data analysis and story-telling.

As the new co-chairs, where do you see taking the Graduate Council next?

Dang: Beyond our day-to-day focus, the council’s thematic vision is toward a University-wide identity and culture. The University of Chicago is a world-class academic experience in many departments—we want to make the student life experience as unparalleled.

Williams: Our hope is that students will choose to come to UChicago not only to further their careers, but also to make lifelong connections and have a community they can always call home.

So what’s new for the 2017-2018 academic school year?

Williams: Well this year there are a few changes to the Council and our operations that can help students have easier access to funding, and offer more opportunities to build community at UChicago. One such example is the establishment of Graduate Student Equivalent Organizations, which can serve as an alternative to forming an RSO and will allow grad students to have easier access to Student Government funding. Also, our Graduate Community Committee, which was successfully piloted in the Spring, will be a long-term initiative of the Council. The Community Committee will provide a place for diverse groups of students to get to know one another in a meaningful way as a smaller, more intimate social experience than our large quarterly events.

Dang: Finally, we have increased our digital footprint through revitalized website, and are more active on our social media pages. These things, in addition to what Nick mentioned, will help to broaden the reach of the Council, making more people aware of what we do, and encouraging them to take advantage of the funding and social opportunities that we offer.