The Graduate Student Council: A Year Ahead

It is well-known that MIT is unique in its path-shaping commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and in the translation of cutting-edge research into the practical realm. Less well-known is that MIT is unique, compared to other major universities, in having graduate students make up a significant majority of our 10,000-strong student body.

As the central representative body of more than 6,000 individuals, each with an accomplished past and a promising future, the MIT Graduate Student Council is the most powerful student group at MIT. The GSC provides essential programs and services that can earn an invaluable place in the life, learning, and development of MIT graduate students and in the tradition of MIT as an institution.

With the inauguration of its new government in early May, the GSC looks ahead to the next year with a broad vision of innovation. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the GSC’s new initiatives and explain the breadth of our activities.

Advocating for graduate students

The GSC is the voice of graduate students to the MIT administration.

By taking a data-driven approach to advocacy, the GSC identifies the needs and desires of graduate students in an objective, principled manner. In our Cost of Living Survey, we determined that most graduate students do not have access to dental insurance. In a year-long effort, the GSC has achieved a plan of basic diagnostic and preventative dental care for graduate students which will be available for subscription in the fall.

Using data from the same survey, the GSC makes the annual case for increasing graduate student stipends to match the increase in the cost of living. For the upcoming year, stipends will increase by 3.5 percent, a portion of which is intended to cover the cost of the dental plan.

In addition, the GSC consistently tackles issues of transportation, housing, rents, and fees. This year, we have worked to change the route of the Cambridge EZ Shuttle so that it provides better service for on-campus students.

The GSC’s relationship with the administration is most often a collaborative one, but sometimes processes break down. In the case of NW35 as well as the conversion of Green Hall to an undergraduate dorm, the administration failed to use these agreed-upon channels to solicit student and faculty input.

To ensure that the administration uses the appropriate channels for soliciting student and faculty input and to explore the issue of student engagement more generally, the GSC and the Undergraduate Association have worked with administrators and faculty to form a new Task Force on Student Engagement, composed of senior administrators and student and faculty leaders. It is a priority of the GSC to make this new body an effective tool for amplifying the voice of graduate students and for safeguarding against what a senior administrator recently referred to as her team’s “dropped passes.”

As for more specific priorities in the realm of advocacy, we will see through the implementation of the basic dental plan, and use it to collect data to make the case for more comprehensive coverage for graduate students. We will work with MIT Medical to increase the effectiveness of health care screening and support at MIT.

With the opening of NW35, the GSC will work with MIT to make sure transportation remains smooth and to explore options for a graduate dining program. At the same time, we will not lose focus on the needs of students living in Tang, Westgate, and Eastgate — particularly on the needs of married students and parents — nor on the unique needs of students living off-campus.

This year, we also look to form a strong partnership with the new Dean for Student Life and to make sure he or she understands the needs and desires of graduate students.

Providing a graduate student community

The GSC provides opportunities for intellectual and social interaction between MIT graduate students. Unlike the Institute-run undergraduate Orientation, the GSC organizes and executes its own annual graduate Orientation. Continuing graduate students are welcome at Orientation events, and interactions with incoming students helps to weave a unified fabric of graduate students.

New to this year’s Graduate Orientation is a Lab Open House during which students can explore labs from neighboring departments. In addition, this year we will place a greater emphasis on connecting incoming Sloan students with students from the other Schools.

Beyond Orientation, the GSC administers the Funding Board, a source of financial support for graduate students groups on campus, and in this way promotes the development of a vibrant cultural, academic, and interest-oriented community of graduate students.

Throughout the year, the GSC puts on events that bring students together. Signature events include the Grad Gala, the Ski Trip, the Acoustic BBQ, a range of cultural outings, organized trips to sports games and excursions to various nearby attractions (F1 go-cart racing, Foxwoods casino, Six Flags, and many more).

In addition, the Muddy Charles Pub provides an environment that promotes mingling and mixing between the departments and Schools.

A highly successful monthly series, the Two Dollar Dinners, brings students together for an inexpensive meal and the opportunity for boundary-less social interaction. This year, we will expand and adapt this program to the expanding NW Corridor.

The GSC aims to provide something for everyone, but also recognizes that different people have a different sense of what is fun. We encourage students to get involved in developing their own programming and provide financial incentive for groups to collaborate on joint events.

At the same time, a priority this year is to continue to develop ways to build graduate community. This development will take multiple forms — expanded cultural and academic events, a focus on community involvement and volunteerism, and sustained attention to current events of social and political importance.

An area of focus for the university is increasing diversity and minority recruitment, and the GSC leadership shares this goal. We will work with the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education to improve recruitment efforts. We will expand the scope and effectiveness of programs for education and outreach on diversity, particularly in conjunction with the Institute-wide Diversity Congress set to take place this fall.

This year, we will convene a Task Force on Alumni Relations to begin the multi-year process of developing a coordinated program of alumni relations. It is crucial to think of graduate community as involving not just current graduate students, but also graduate student alumni. This will be a unique chance to expand the ties, communications, and mentorship opportunities between students and alumni.

In addition, this year we will implement a Graduate Gift campaign (similar to a Senior Class Gift) to fundraise for a cause that directly benefits graduate students, such as the Emergency Dental Fund or graduate fellowships.

Improving support and communication

The GSC provides a range of services to support career development and decision-making.

Along with the Senior Class Council and SWE, the GSC organizes the MIT Career Fair each September. This unique event brings in hundreds of companies to MIT and is fundamental to constructing and promoting the MIT brand to industry.

Panels and workshops on academic careers are a staple of the summer months, and workshops on alternative careers are offered throughout the fall. Collaborations with the MIT Careers Office to bring in speakers throughout the year provide additional opportunities for networking and development.

For incoming international students, the Airport Shuttle and International Mentorship Program provide basic means of support, in addition to the important services of the ISO.

For students unable to secure funding for conference travel from their advisors or departments, the GSC administers a Travel Grant program. New last year was a similar program for Athletics and Performing Arts, which boasted applications totaling an order of magnitude larger than the funds available for allocation.

Looking to the year ahead, the GSC plans to initiate several programs to provide augmented opportunities for growth and development.

A dissertation bootcamp, to be held in conjunction with the Writing Center, will help provide students a little kick to get their thesis moving and out the door.

A more substantial project on the docket for this year is to develop a single seminar calendar for all departments and centers which would unify the disparate ways that these seminars are advertised. Like the Lab Open House discussed earlier, this project serves to address the demands of a multidisciplinary MIT.

We are committed to promoting the development of graduate student leaders at MIT, not just in the GSC.

This effort has multiple goals. For one, increasing student involvement makes for a more vibrant graduate community. To this end, the GSC will work with departments that do not currently have an organized graduate student association to assess the need and potential advantages for creating such a structure.

We will also strengthen our programs that bring together current student leaders in a setting that fosters potential collaborations between groups. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

The GSC also serves as a central means for communicating with the graduate student body — through the GSC Anno mailing list, the GSC Web site, and the Graduate Student News magazine.

Motivated by the mission of the MIT Energy Initiative and the international focus on climate change issues, the GSC also is exploring way to reduce its own carbon footprint. One way is by cutting down the printing and mailing of the GSN so that at most one issue is sent to any given apartment or office. We are exploring other opportunities to decrease our environmental impact, including ways to motivate reductions in energy consumption in graduate dorms, which would also have the net effect of lowering rents.

The strength of the GSC lies in its ability to ascertain and represent the wide range of interests of the diverse MIT graduate student body. I have tremendous enthusiasm for the year ahead. There is much that we can accomplish together.

Oaz Nir G is the GSC President for the 2008–2009 academic year.