Representing graduate students in a virtual world
The Graduate Council is the elected representative body and the primary voice of the graduate student community at Rensselaer. Since its inception in 1953, the Graduate Council continues to advocate for graduate students and plan social programming throughout the year. In a typical year, the Graduate Council organizes various events such as Troy Kitchen Takeover, Hockey Night, Pub Night, Meet and Greet, Grad Field Day, and Graduate Research Symposium (in collaboration with Colleen Smith, Dean of Graduate Experience).
As we all know, the past year was not your average year. As with most student organizations, our regular programming was out of the question and advocacy for our constituency took the front seat.
In the face of new challenges, the members of the Council proactively joined various committees and worked with other students and administrators to make the road to the new normal a little less bumpy. To help foster social interaction, the Council decided to host Office Hours and conduct small weekly virtual events instead of a handful of big events spread out over the academic year.
These events covered a variety of graduate-related topics, and hosted allies from the administration to interact with the graduate students. We’ve had guests from the Offices of Graduate Education (OGE), Graduate Experience, International Services for Students and Scholars (ISSS), Payroll, and Counselling Center among others join us on our weekly “Grad Hour” events. In the virtual environment, activity-based events often came handy in reaching out to our peers. We highlighted important issues and celebrated minorities in events such as Pride Bingo and Black History Bingo. With such virtual events, we were also able to create opportunities to learn about various topics - mental health, career/fellowship opportunities, and different cultures around the world. We even used memes as icebreakers in a virtual meet-and-greet with new students.
Our “Pearls of Wisdom” speaker series featured Dr. Stanley M. Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education, and Dr. Robert Hull, Acting Vice President for Research, who inspired us with their stories and suggestions. Over the holidays, we hosted programs such as virtual escape rooms and movie nights for graduate students to have some fun with their friends and family and helped organize a ‘Grab and Go’ meal for graduate students. More often than not, these Grad Hours were the time of the week where graduate students could just hang out and play online games, trump each other on trivia nights, carve pumpkins, or paint “together” though we couldn’t meet each other in person.
Advocacy for graduate students remains a focus for us. The Graduate Council lends the graduate perspective to administrators when called for, as we wish to minimize the negative effect of certain policies on graduate students. We worked to ensure that the 2:1 bathroom policy did not extend to grad students, confirmed that a graduate student who tested positive for COVID-19 would not have to pay for on-campus isolation, and pushed for a relaxed water-drinking policy in research areas within buildings. Other efforts included urging for different testing schedules for graduate students based on their need to access the campus and voicing for getting some way out for our peers to continue in their program who got stuck internationally due to travel restrictions.
Communication was another challenge for everyone amidst the constantly changing global health situation, and Rensselaer was no different. As the situation kept developing, the Institute had to adapt while learning a lot of the nuances of this major switch on the go. One of the most important steps towards making sure communications also addressed graduate student needs was helping to set up a graduate-specific FAQs website. We reminded the Institute to send communications early and hold graduate-specific town halls to give our peers enough time to plan accordingly.
Improving communication channels also required that we refine our own communication channels so we could reach as many of our peers as possible. This task included the formation of an Ad-Hoc committee of Rensselaer Graduate Student Leaders from various Graduate Student organizations on campus. This committee helped to create a free flow of information across sub cohorts and departments, allowing us to understand department-specific issues and the need for department-specific town halls.
In addition to the OGE and the Office of Graduate Experience, we also connected with the Graduate Program Administrators across campus, ISSS, Health, and Counselling Center, The Polytechnic, and other campus resources. This collaboration helped us to make sure important information from us reached as many graduate students as possible through emails, Office Hours, and other social platforms. We made ourselves more available as well, setting up infrastructure so students could reach out to us anonymously. We also compiled all graduate student resources and put them on the Graduate Council’s website.
This year has been very challenging, and our work couldn’t have been possible without the help of our allies. We would like to thank every member of the graduate student community for keeping that continuous trust and faith in us, members of the administration—especially Dean Dunn and Dean Smith—faculty, staff, student leaders, and organization across campus who helped us represent the Graduate Student Community at Rensselaer better in this very unique and challenging year. As our term comes to a close, we hope our work had a positive impact on our peers.
Graduate students, we hope you will participate in the upcoming Grand Marshal week and join the Graduate Council to help improve graduate life at Rensselaer!