September 11, 2007

Graduate Students Aim for More Unity

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The top rankings of Cornell’s graduate programs in many fields of study by U.S. News and World Report — 14th in business, 13th in law, 15th in research medicine, 10th in engineering — are well-known. What may be less known are the faces behind the numbers: the students, faculty and family members that make up the graduate and professional community at Cornell. The aim of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly is to bring these people together and help to create an individual, yet integrated, identity for the students — outside the rankings.
The Graduate Community Initiative was presented by the GPSA to President David Skorton on March 14 to address issues that have arisen out of what is seen by some as a segregated graduate community — segregated both by the various fields of study and by the larger Cornell community.
Michelle Leinfelder grad, vice president and communications chair of the GPSA, described the initiative as a means by which to report some of the chronic problems within the graduate community, such as graduate housing affordability and proximity to campus, transportation issues, child care availability and affordability, and health care — both spousal and individual.
Rather than emphasize the issues raised by the GCI, Leinfelder emphasized its vision.
“Central to all of these things that we do will be a better awareness among the graduate population,” said Michelle Leinfelder, vice president and communications chair of the GPSA. “A unified graduate community — that’s a major theme of the Graduate Community Initiative.”
Yu Yu grad, president of the GPSA, explained the research behind the initiative.
“When they drafted this they actually compared programs at other Ivy League schools,” she said.
Yu and Leinfelder expressed a desire to centralize resources into a new graduate center, with the assistance of the administration.
“We’re addressing these issues and suggest if they bring more resources, we can unify it into the student center,” Yu said.
Leinfelder added, “The administration has been really receptive to us, the GCI has gotten the attention of the administration and board of trustees — they are all very supportive.”
One such example of the administration’s new dedication to graduate and professional community causes, according to Yu, is the re-formation of the position of assistant dean for graduate student life.
Brenda Wickes ’85 was appointed to this position on July 16th.
“Well, I think according to the deans when I was hired, [the position] is career services, graduate student life and programming, and graduate life support services — in any way shape or form that might take,” Wickes said, describing her role. “Crisis response, leaves of absence, getting graduate spouses connected with the community, getting graduate support services, working with the local school district and other educational providers — whatever might arise.”
In regards to whether the new position is alleviating the problems brought to the administration by the GPSA thus far, Wickes commented to the effect that it is too early too tell.
“I haven’t made it quite two months so I’m still exploring, learning, making connections; it’s very exciting. There are a lot of resources for students out there. Many of the undergraduate resources are available for grad students as well. It’s a matter of connecting the dots.”
Leinfelder agreed.
“I think right now it’s a little bit early to say how it’s benefited us,” she said. “I think there will be a lot of cooperation between Brenda and the GPSA in the future.”
Yu and Leinfelder also both expressed the importance of learning from experience, but in regards to consulting with past GPSA assemblies.
“It’s important that we take things in a new direction, to make sure that the assembly members feel like they have a place, that things aren’t just being inherited,” Yu said. “Of course we continue what’s been presented to us, but we wish to build upon that and make this year our own.”
A point of contention in the past with both the GPSA and the Student Assembly, the representative body for undergraduate students, is a disconnect between the assemblies, the general student population, and the administration.
“They can go through their representatives, they can come to my office,” Wickes said.
Beyond this intimate access, Wickes described working closely with the graduate field representatives and personally attending GPSA meetings. Additionally, Wickes will be attending with the assembly an all-ivy conference for graduate student assemblies.
“I expect to be working very closely with the assembly and any other individual student who has ideas about improving the graduate and professional community at Cornell,” she said.
The reasons for the re-vamping of the position of assistant dean for graduate student life, according to Leinfelder, is due in part to awareness generated by the GCI.
“Graduate student life has always been on the mind of the administrators, but it came more to the forefront with the Graduate community initiative,” she said. “It showed them that they need to make this a priority, and give some more weight to this position.”
In terms of future progress for the GPSA in bringing together the graduate student community, Yu said, “I think right now it looks like we have some really enthusiastic people getting involved … we’re having an overwhelming response so far, it just serves to show students are wanting to be involved with campus life.”
Yu continued, “Since at the grad level you are more focused on your own career, you get less involved in the University wide social environment. Our goal is for students to feel they still belong to Cornell.”