President of GSC Speaks About Grad Student Life

Ekstrom Discusses Needs, Problems, Improvements

This is the sixth interview in a seven-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech interviews Leeland B. Ekstrom G, president of the Graduate Student Council. Ekstrom talks about graduate student life and his plans for the GSC.

The Tech: What is your role at MIT?

Leeland Ekstrom: I am a PhD student and the president of the Graduate Student Council.

TT: What was your first impression of MIT?

LE: I came down in March of the spring before I was a student for part of the interview process for the [Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology]. There was a lot of construction going on at that time. The Stata Center was still in bits and pieces. My first impression was: Wow, there’s a lot of renewal, growth … there’s lot of stuff happening here, and there’s a lot of infrastructure being built.

When I sat down and thought about it, the size of the campus is very large compared to the student body; there’s a lot of space. I guess it’s partly reflecting the research activities that go on here. People find the campus a disjointed campus, but in some ways, it is quite nice, especially walking on the river. … You’ve got the skyline of Boston on one hand, and you have this grand dome with this giant grassy place. I guess it’s easy to forget our surroundings, running around with class and lab. Often we don’t stop and appreciate the splendor of some of these sites.

TT: What made you want to become the GSC president?

LE: I’ve been involved with the GSC almost since I got here. I was a representative for HST my first two years. Junior year, I worked for the [Graduate Student News] as one of the layout people, getting the magazine together. Last year, I was the Housing and Community Affairs chair; [the HCA] is one of the four main committees of the GSC. It is very much involved in the advocacy efforts of the GSC in terms of stipend increases, on-campus housing, and what happens to the campus housing system concerning rent.

We were a big part of the MIT Cable updates last summer, which I think most have enjoyed. I guess I enjoyed those policy aspects ­— not that I don’t like the fun aspects of the GSC as well — thinking about how to break down an issue and how to present your case and argue for something.

The president is also the primary person responsible for coordinating those efforts. From my time in HCA, stepping up to the presidency seemed like a natural progression. I got a chance to do what I enjoyed in the HCA position and a chance to advocate and lobby for the graduate student body as a whole — we’re the largest population on campus with about 6,500 of us, compared to 4,000 undergrads.

TT: That’s surprising because MIT seems to concentrate on undergrad education.

LE: That is a very astute observation. I think some of that just may be historical. For a long time, undergrads used to be the bigger population. One of the things I’m hoping to do this year is to raise awareness of the GSC, make sure all the students know about all the stuff we do. But then also, to anyone who would listen, tell them about the size of the graduate population and some of the needs of the graduate population.

If there are specific areas or offices that we feel are really focusing on undergrads, we’re going to go in and try to make a case, saying, “Well, there’s a very big part of the MIT population here that maybe is not taking advantage of your services.” I don’t think it’s willful.

For most people, after talking with administrators, when they went to grad school 20, 30, 40 years ago, the concept of graduate student life didn’t really exist. It was a job; you went into lab for your 8, 10, 12 hours, you went home, you probably lived off-campus. So the idea of on-campus dormitories or graduate housing on campus didn’t really exist; they didn’t really have tight communities, and life outside of lab didn’t really exist.

The Northwest Corridor [the area near Sidney-Pacific dormitory] is really exciting. With the new dorm [NW35] coming up there, there will be 1,700 students living in that corridor. It’s quite a concentration of graduate students, so places like the Thirsty Ear Pub can really become a hub of graduate student activity and life on campus.

I’m a big advocate of encouraging people not to spend all their time focused in their laboratory. If you let it, it is possible that all your time will get sucked up. … I think that the new dean for graduate students, Steven [R.] Lerman [’72], is a big fan of this as well. He is forcing people to round out other sides of their education …

Go down to the sailing pavilion and learn how to sail. Go enter the glass lottery and do the glass lab if you actually get a chance to get in there. Take advantage of the Hobby Shop and the athletic facilities that we have here. Go play underwater hockey. So many oddball activities exist. I think that there is a lot more to the campus that people realize.

TT: What are some of the needs that the Institute isn’t meeting at the moment?

LE: I can give you a couple of specific examples that I can talk about in broad terms. We’re going to try to work with MIT Medical to get some sort of dental care package for graduate students. … A lot of graduate students don’t have any comprehensive dental care so either they don’t go to the dentist or it costs a lot of money when they go to the dentist. …

The big thing that the GSC is debating about is the funding for student activities: where does the money go, such as the Student Life Fee? …

There are a lot of resources the undergraduates have financially that the graduate population should have equally. Personally for the GSC, we rely very heavily on the Career Fair; a lot of the programs we run are dependent on the revenue from that career fair. … Looking at the more general need of the graduate students, funding is always a concern. …

One of the challenges here at MIT is that the graduate population is so large compared to the undergraduate population; there just aren’t as many undergraduate courses to give every graduate student who needs it a [teaching assistantship]. Other schools where you have a 10:1 ratio, it’s easy to get a TA. Maybe that’s one thing that is unfortunate about the graduate education here at MIT, especially if you want to go onto academia. [Students] may not have a chance to develop those teaching skills. …

A full TA paid by a department covers your full tuition and stipend. It’s on the order of almost $30,000/semester. …

About 30 percent of the graduate population is married, maybe 700 of those have children — the idea of living on a graduate student stipend trying to support this many people just boggles me. …

I’m sure it’s incredibly challenging, and what the Institute can do to support the family population is something we always ask every year. The Tech[nology] Children’s Centers are not necessarily financially accessible for graduate students. The rates they charge there — basically, your entire stipend would go to childcare. … The Institute has done a good job over the past several years; each year they have been able to bring down the cost.

International students are another population. How are those people supported while they are here at MIT? The International Students Office is, a lot of the times, very busy with the mundane paperwork details. The reporting requirements are extensive — having to make sure everyone’s visas and paperwork is in order.

How do you support these people when they have problems? They don’t necessarily know who to go to ask for help … what about cultural adaptation to the U.S.? The graduate students are going to be here for five or six years — what can we do at the beginning to smooth out that process? Are there things we can do to encourage international students to mix more with outside of whatever comfort group they come from? … The graduate population is about 35 percent international, roughly — considerably bigger than the undergraduate [international] population — so there are events that the GSC can put on that are more welcoming to the whole spectrum.

TT: How do you plan to, as the president, increase the awareness of the graduate population size on campus?

LE: Continuing some of the events from last year, like the Graduate Gala, [which] I think was a big publicity generator. It was a very successful event; 700 graduate students showed up at the Park Plaza and 100 plus more asked for tickets afterwards. We are going to run it again this year, and this is sort of a big signature event that the GSC is uniquely positioned to run and really promote.

Other things we would like to do in the GSC office is to get in touch with all the different departments. The GSC did a big survey on advising a couple years ago, looking at the best practices in different departments. A lot of the aggregated information was publicized, but I don’t think a lot of the information goes back to the department level. …

The new Ashdown [NW35] construction plans were first proposed a year-and-a-half ago, and it was something GSC responded to with quite a bit of vigor. It was a very nuanced issue, but it showed the benefit of having a common student voice. I think the final building that’s going up is much more desirable for the students and for the people who are going to use that space than when it was initially proposed. There’s much more community and common space in there than was going to exist previously.

There are some lower priced rooms — that was one concern with losing Ashdown [W1]. [W1] has all the rents on the low end of the spectrum. The [NW35] building as it was initially proposed was supposed to have rents at the higher end of the spectrum, so where do [the W1] students go? Partially, it has been addressed. There are some lower cost options, but there are going to be students who aren’t going to want to move into that new building because they don’t want to or it’s more than they want to pay.

TT: What do you like doing in your free time?

LE: During the winter, I’m a big skier. The GSC has a snowboarding, skiing trip — I really like taking advantage of the outdoors. Less exotic pursuits: I love reading the newspaper in the morning, whether it’s The Tech or The Boston Globe, just taking half an hour to eat breakfast, or taking the shuttle to lab.

I enjoy intramural sports as well. I didn’t actually play hockey in Canada. I started playing IM hockey when I came down here. It sort of breaks the stereotype; we don’t all play hockey in Canada. …

I like going out on the town in Boston. There are a lot of different performances that come into Boston. My girlfriend is a big fan of ballet, so I enjoy going with her, seeing dance performances. Not much theater necessarily, but we’ve been to see the [Boston] Pops a couple times. Usually students can get in for $20. Always ask for student price. That is one piece of advice for new students.