By Julia Schemmer | UC Riverside
The UCSA Student Organizing Summit may be characterized by the unveiling of the new two-year undergraduate campaigns, but that’s not all that happens during the exciting weekend. The graduate students who attend the conference work earnestly at developing their next advocacy agenda, a specific list of goal-driven priorities to better the needs and interests of graduate students. We had the chance to sit down with Michelle Oyewole, the 2016-2017 Chair of the Graduate and Professional Committee, and catch up with her on what’s next for the committee, what their goals are, and how they hope to make it happen.
JS: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview! I want to first begin with the new advocacy agenda that the graduate students adopted during the Student Organizing Summit. Could you tell me a little bit more about each item and what you hope to focus on?
MO: We came up with a list of eight agenda items. Overall, the agenda can be divided into three themes– affordability, equity and connection.
JS: That’s awesome! Could you tell me a little bit about the three sub themes of affordability, equity and connection?
MO: One of the agenda items under affordability is establishing a “dignified standard of living” for graduate students. This item is in part about addressing the fact that many grad and professional students are responsible for supporting families. We are often older, or we have returned to education after some time in the professional work force, so our needs are different than those of undergrads. This item also addresses our need for affordable food, housing and transportation.
Our item “transparency and diversity of funding opportunities” seeks ways to rectify nontransparent allocation of funding, and ensuring that diversity fellowships actually go to the populations that are underrepresented or marginalized. We will also be focusing heavily on PDST [Professional Degree Supplemental Tuition].
Under equity, we’re looking to achieve a diverse campus and improve campus climate; we want to see genuine recruitment and active retention of underrepresented groups, and we want to ensure that best practices guide graduate student and advisor relationships. This builds from the UCSA resolution that was adopted in May 2016, where we established a desire to see a reciprocal evaluation process to identify problematic mentorship relationships, as there can be a power dynamic between the two. A faculty advisor has control over funding and determines when students can advance to candidacy. We want to be able to intervene where students might be unjustly treated, especially when it appears when these trends appear to be disproportionately affecting students of marginalized backgrounds, presenting other barriers to accessing higher education. We will also be advocating for inclusive practices in the graduate student community that will benefit students of color, LGBTQIA students, international students, disabled students, and nontraditional students.
Under connection, one of our agenda items is “Building strong community partnerships”. We also want to create a sustainable university culture, and bridge the gap between undergraduate and graduate students.
JS: That is so exciting! Could you tell me what the difference is between undergraduate and graduate campaigns?
MO: In some ways, there is a lot of overlap. This agenda focuses on the needs of the graduate and professional students. We are focusing on a dignified standard of living for graduate students, similar to the call for basic needs in the undergraduate campaign SOS. SOS is doing well to include statistics about food insecurity for graduate students, as well, and we need their voices in solidarity. The campaign model is different because undergraduates have a two year cycle, but the grad/prof agenda is renewed every year.
JS: What do you believe are the biggest issues facing graduate students?
MO: Our list is long and comprehensive, and if you look at it by rank, the top issues are 1) Dignified graduate/professional standard of living, 2) Diverse campus climate, genuine recruitment, and active retention, and 3) Best practices for graduate student–advisor relationships.
Our agenda items determine the ability of students to perform well in academia. If you don’t have food or funding, or if you don’t feel comfortable where you live and work and go to school, what is your motivation to continue? I think as a collective committee, we identified this set of issues because it focuses on making sure that every student feels included, and that there is equity and student participation in how decisions are made.
JS: How is organizing and advocating for graduate student issues different than organizing and advocating for undergraduate student issues?
MO: There are fewer of us for one. Our schedules are quite demanding, we have to be very smart with our time. I think that grad students get a lot done by talking to people in the administration and communicating with one another on a one on one basis, and trying to recruit people through informal means in advocacy. We’ve gone through the undergrad experience and we know what that’s like, so now we’re building off of what we learned then.
JS: As chair, what is your role in facilitating these action items and what are the goals of your committee?
MO: I am responsible for setting the agenda and facilitating the meetings. I serve as an external representative of the committee when we meet with the UC Office of the President and the Regents. I do the tasks that are asked of by the committee, while taking my own initiative to do things. My goals are to enact change, both system-wide and on every campus.
JS: You were a part of the graduate and professional committee last year. What was one thing you hope to keep as a part of the committee culture, and one thing you want to introduce to your committee?
MO: Last year I liked that we were able to share our personal experiences on our campus. One thing I want to do is figure out how we can work with UCSA’s government relations, campus action, and university affairs committees.
JS: Often administration tries to put undergrads and graduate students against each other. What plans do you have for collaboration between undergrads and grads, especially since a lot of our issues intersect and relate to one another?
MO: We want to have organizing efforts and campus actions that recognize grad student issues while building upon the mass and power that undergraduates bring to the table. We want to directly collaborate with undergrads in enacting those campus action plans. Now within UCSA, we have the BUGS program [a grad-undergrad accountability partnership] to keep each other updated about what’s going on in our spheres.
Julia Schemmer is a first-year Public Policy major at UC Riverside and Media Intern for the UC Student Association. Her goal is simple: to put the lit back in politics.