Graduate students can be found all around campus, serving as assistants in academic departments, leading classes as teaching assistants and conducting research.
Despite their involvement, the research focus of graduate programs can leave some students feeling isolated and lacking community. The Graduate Student Association (GSA), a student organization dedicated to serving the needs of grad students, hopes to change that.
As a part of this year’s goals, GSA wants to increase stipends and tuition support for graduate students, improve communication, increase GSA's impact on campus and increase diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within their organization.
Max Akonde, the GSA president and a fourth-year Ph.D. student, said that graduate students play a unique role acting as both students and employees. Taking on this dual role can be difficult when stipends provided for these jobs don’t fully cover tuition and living expenses. According to Graduate Programs for Educators, graduate students also have less access to grants and scholarships that may provide additional support.
“It's only this year I get to have my stipend increase. A lot of other departments or programs do not do that,” Akonde said. “Basically being able to work within the limited resources but supporting students to ensure that they are having some at least decent living, and that can only happen if they're paid decent amount of stipends.”
Akonde hopes GSA can facilitate more benefits like maintaining travel grants and stipend increases from the university to help support students.
Shea Ferguson, Akonde’s chief of staff and an educational psychology and research Ph.D. student, said that many graduate students struggle with loneliness, but she sees the Graduate Student Association as a way to bring the community together.
“It can be very isolating when you're working on research all day by yourself,” Ferguson said. “Something that I'm interested in is helping with the social aspect of that. So, helping create events for grad students can come talk to each other, collaborate interdisciplinary.”
GSA plans to implement more opportunities to connect different graduate communities across campus, including adding to a mentorship program matching students with faculty and staff members for support and advice. Akonde said he hopes to expand the mentorship opportunities specifically to LGBTQIA+ and Black graduate student communities as well.
“Definitely want to highlight that, beyond the advocacy we do, pretty much the programs that are centered more on just the needs of graduate students,” Akonde said.
Akonde wants to ensure that the GSA is a part of the larger conversation of student needs on campus by having graduate students present on more university committees and in conversations with university faculty.
During a presentation at GSA’s first meeting, university President Michael Amiridis said he thinks it is important to have a separate Imagine Carolina event where graduate students can discuss their goals for the university. Akonde said he is looking forward to participating in such an event in the future.
“Because the classroom in an undergraduate setting is very different than your classroom, the relationships and the issues that you face because you're employees of the university are very different. But the undergraduate students will not come in and say 'increase our salaries,'” Amiridis said.
Amiridis said that his priorities are aligned with those of Provost Donna Arnett and that his main goal will be maintaining a positive student experience for all parts of the student body.
“Because if you don't have a good experience, you're not going to be very successful,” Amiridis said. “The same way that is true for the undergraduate students defines the success of the university. The university cannot be successful if (graduate students) are not successful.”
GSA meets every two weeks and will have their next meeting on Oct. 21, 2022. All graduate and professional students are welcome to attend. Students can learn more about their meeting offerings on their website.