The Graduate Student Association has some new initiatives — and tricks up their sleeve — to help enhance the experience for all graduate students this term. DrexelNow sat down with GSA President Alexandria Will-Cole, a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering, to get the details.
Q: How has your time in the role been so far? What have you been doing the same, and what have you been trying to change?
A: My time so far as president of the Graduate Student Association has been really good and also a really good learning experience just for me personally. In terms of what I've been doing the same as previous administrations, I’ve continued a lot of the same programming that historically has been done by the GSA as far as our Scholars Share academic program, and I’m now beginning to plan our Drexel Emerging Graduate Scholars Conference and some of the more historical social events that we do like our whitewater rafting trip.
In terms of what I've been trying to change, it’s really somewhat similar to what was done two years ago. Two years ago, a graduate student survey was compiled, and we’re beginning to put together another survey so that we can try to start to be more effective graduate student advocates. Not just having a focus on programming, but also just on advocacy in general — we’re trying to emphasize that more this year. … We're really hoping it's going to be a sampling of just understanding graduate student satisfaction with how their life is at Drexel. So it will cover things like the health care insurance, their vacation time, their stipend, availability of resources like the gym or to graduate student spaces (like student lounges and commuter kitchens) — just in general, those types of things in daily life that graduate students face. We're going to be sending the survey out before the end of the fall term.
Q: Is the role what you expected? What do you think makes you a good fit for it and how has it been balancing your other responsibilities?
A: I'm a third year PhD candidate, so I'm actually doing my thesis proposal very soon. So it is a very hectic time in terms of balancing with my research. … There are more weekends that I have to do lab work and research to balance the role of president. But, you know, that comes with the territory. They tell you that when you go for these types of positions. But along with that it's been a really good balancing act because I have such a strong board that I work with. We have a lot of experience between all the different board members. We have people who understand Drexel because they went to undergraduate at Drexel, so they're very familiar with how Drexel operates and how to accomplish different things. Then we also have several students that have been very involved in our sponsored organizations. So in terms of programming and working with the Graduate College, we have really healthy relationships there. I would say it’s been a doable position since I have such a strong board to kind of lean on for support.
Q: Tell me about the graduate student health and wellness pillar of your work this year, why you think it’s important and what you are doing a make a difference on that front?
A: I had read an article in Nature Biotechnology that actually highlighted scientific evidence that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population, which is a significant amount. So that kind of was a wakeup call for me that this is a really a big issue facing the graduate population and we're just under such high stress that it does affect graduate students’ mental health. … In the short term, the Graduate Student Association wants to start trying to improve this at the student level by making sure resources are available to students on campus in terms of physical programming, counseling, different kinds information on what other stresses might be affecting them like balancing finances — just trying to make sure that they're all the way around healthy so they can really be focused and productive with their graduate coursework.
Q: Another goal of yours was to promote more new student involvement in the GSA. What are you doing to achieve this and make the GSA an organization reflective of the whole graduate student body?
A: I guess this goes into different categories. So one of those categories is just having first-year students involved in the Graduate Student Association programming in terms of just showing up to our events — not super committed in terms of time and participation, but at least attending our events and building their own social support network. We have had a lot of first-year students actually come to some of our social events. … Additionally, in terms of actually getting directly involved with the Graduate Student Association, we're ramping up our Drexel Emerging Graduate Scholars (DEGS) Conference planning. We're going to reach out to students soon and try to start forming some subcommittees for the DEGS planning. That's going to be a great opportunity for first-year graduate students to get involved directly with the GSA, planning this large-scale academic conference that we do every year. It’s going to be April 10 and 11, tentatively. It is an all-year planning event because we're growing it even larger than previous years. It's actually going to be a day and a half event rather than in the past it’s been just a one-day event. So, it’s just kind of an all-year project. … We'll be releasing information about that pretty soon in terms of what the theme will be this year and what the format will be and how people can get involved. We are going to try to make that conference more inclusive to all of Drexel graduates. In the past it's been very science and engineering heavy, and so this year we're really trying to open it up to more of our arts and science side and the humanities — also because we want to hear about their graduate research as well. So, we're hoping it'll be a lot more multidisciplinary this year. The other category, would be reaching out to students that are not necessarily involved in the GSA sponsored organizations. We are hoping that students that we don’t necessarily have great lines of communication with will take our survey. This survey will alert us, the GSA, what is important to Drexel’s graduate population.
Q: Why is the DEGS conference an important annual event for the GSA?
A: It’s one of the most important academic- and research-related events for graduate students at Drexel University, and it is a student-run. It started in 2017 and has really, really grown in the last two years. Last year there were actually 380 attendees and close to 100 abstracts submitted. We're really trying to grow it just because it's such a popular event amongst graduate students. Not all graduates get the opportunity to go to external conferences, so this really provides them a platform where they can get practice sharing their work and also see what everyone else is working on so they can possibly find partners within the Drexel community to form collaborations with. Also, one of the interesting things that's a part of that it is that we do a three-minute thesis competition. That's always a really fun event, and it gets people excited about hearing about other people's research and also gives practice to people to present their thesis in kind of an elevator pitch format. The conference is really geared toward sharing your research but to a more general audience. So it really challenges students to realize how to present their work when they’re not presenting to people specifically in their field of research, which is a really important skill once we leave graduate school. Also it's a really good practice for developing skills in terms of how to sell your ideas and your research by being able to present them to people who may not be in your field. All in all, I think it's a really important platform for Drexel graduate students to share their work.
Q: How does the GSA work with the International Graduate Student Association?
A: The International Graduate Student Association is actually a sponsored organization underneath the Graduate Student Association umbrella, so we fund their events. They are one of our largest and most active sponsored organizations and they do a lot of great programming. Definitely look out for their events this year. There are a lot of great ones that are going to touch multiple international students. They are following the wellness initiatives, too, and they're going to do a lot of mindfulness and physical health focused events this year.
Q: Will anything change for you now that the GSA is moving under Student Life?
A: In the past, the Graduate Student Association has been solely underneath the Graduate College. By moving to Student Life, it's actually making the back-end work of the GSA a lot simpler so that we can really focus on more important things. What it really does is it provides us a framework for handling our finances and also in terms of all of the sponsored graduate student orgs just being able to handle their own finances, as well. … Additionally, the GSA is now partnering with Student Life on a lot of upcoming programming. For instance, one of the series we are collaborating on is Wellness Wednesdays which is connecting to Center City Campus students and, of course, it's going to be wellness programming every Wednesday. … We still are very intricately connected with the Graduate College. We still partner on a lot of events like projects like the Drexel Emerging Graduate Scholars Conference and Scholars Share. They are also co-sponsoring our wellness initiative. So, if anything, I think it just broadened our support network on campus.
Q: What do you wish more graduate students knew or understood about the role of the GSA?
A: I'm always a proponent that what you put into Drexel is what you get out of Drexel. I think the same thing applies with the Graduate Student Association. I always encourage first-year students, especially master’s students who really don't have as much time to acclimate and get embedded in the community, to really seek out the Graduate Student Association sponsored organizations like the IGSA, DGWISE, MRS and others — you know, these different organizations to get involved with to help enhance their graduate experience.
Additionally, as the Graduate Student Association, we are an advocate for graduate students and we want to have your ears. So, for instance, when we send out our survey, I really hope people take the time to fill it out because that is our main line of communication and sampling of data. If you want to be able to tell us about your experiences, what kind of change you’d like to see, filling out that survey is going to be really important. … Just come to our events, have a good time. We do a lot of professional development events, we do a lot of social events, we do a lot of physical activity and wellness type events. Regardless, you're going to meet people, you're going to form connections on campus and it's going enhance your graduate experience.