by M. Celia Villac Also see other articles by M. Celia Villac
Graduate degree programs at TAMU are relatively young. The university can boast approximately thirty years of true graduate strength, in contrast to more than one hundred years of undergraduate strength. Graduate students are still building the environment and community that brings visibility on campus. The great value of graduate student organizations lies in their ability to bring people together, promote democratic discussions, and conduct student votes on issues. Amazingly, graduate students became part of almost every university decision-making process in the past two or three years, including university policy-making committees and several award and search committees. The fact that most students are not aware of that is even more remarkable. It is critical to increase student involvement and thus develop a graduate community of people identifiable by their ideas, needs, and expectations. After all, graduate students make up 19.6% of TAMU's student population, and one in five is a significant number!
Ph.D. student in sociology
"We need to be more aware and proud of the fact that there is a graduate community at A&M and develop that," says Amy Kardell, president of the Graduate Student Council (GSC). "The administration has been great, and they have been waiting for the graduate Goliath to finally wake up. They are looking at us as a real resource," she says. Amy thinks that to increase student participation it is important to describe the role of GSC in concrete terms. Students get more involved when real issues are at stake and valuable information is available. For instance, a pertinent issue this year is possible increases in some student fees, on which a referendum has been proposed by the undergraduate leaders. TAMU graduate students tend not to vote in the referendum process because they do not see it as their own. GSC will strive to educate graduate students to insure that if there is a referendum, they will see it as their right and responsibility to be informed and to vote.
Amy points out that Texas A&M does not have a graduate college, a central administrative unit to bring the graduate programs together. Instead, graduate education is decentralized into ten colleges, with approximately 85 different graduate programs and 85 ways of doing things. The university administration seeks graduate students' opinions, so students need to be able to speak with a unified voice. GSC relies on individual members to determine students' ideas on important issues such as a possible tuition increase and student's insurance, day-care, library, and computer-facility needs. Participants conduct surveys, interview students, and talk to administrators, then bring their information to the GSC forum for open discussion. "That is how students can get a good active voice," says Amy, and "that is how faculty and the administration know that students really value what they say and what they want." Amy advocates working with the administration to find solutions that work for everyone, rather than making demands that do not work for anyone.
Amy defines her university life in terms of three responsibilities which she strives to weigh equally: course work, research, and the GSC presidency. She dedicates ten to thirty hours per week to GSC, budgeting her time with the help of a very good executive committee that accepts a lot of responsibility. The executive committee consists of eight officers who work with forty-eight active departmental representatives and other volunteers. Amy believes she has developed professional skills that cannot be learned in a classroom or lab, some of which are valuable for incoming junior faculty at any major research university. "I know how the university budget is formed, and how a search committee works," says Amy, "I know funding sources, and where the money pockets are." Amy was admitted to TAMU in 1992, and despite the time she dedicates to GSC, she expects to finish course work this year, then face her preliminary exams.
Master's student in oceanography
Paula Bontempi volunteers about ten hours per month representing TAMU oceanography students at GSC. During her two years with GSC she has seen active graduate-program representation increase dramatically from 10% to 80%. Paula explains that GSC conducts meetings efficiently to make the best use of the student's time. GSC meets twice per month, from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., with agendas distributed in advance. Meetings continue through the summer and are always open to students who wish to participate, although only elected representatives can vote. Issues GSC recently discussed included tuition increases, rules and guidelines for the use of student enhancement funds, library resources, health benefits, and programs like Transitions and the Research Poster Competition. "It is intellectually stimulating and fun to be part of GSC discussions," Paula says. She encourages oceanography students to attend GSC meetings or bring their ideas to her because, she says, "we do have a say."
Last fall Paula helped organize the highly successful Research Poster Competition sponsored by GSC. She says several people helped organize the event, but that it would have been more fun and less work if more had joined the effort. "We lose some volunteers because they put in so much effort alone that they get worn out," explains Paula. This fall GSC plans to organize a "graduate week" to highlight teaching and research activities of graduate students on campus. The event will give graduate students from different departments a chance to work together and meet people. One can get great research ideas by talking to students from different backgrounds. "Slowly but surely," says Paula, "we are developing professional and social networks among departments."
Like other GSC representatives, Paula was appointed to a university committee, in her case, the Health Center Advisory Council that discusses health services policy. The experience she has gained from getting involved in student organizations is not only rewarding now, but also constitutes an investment that will pay off later. When she leaves here Paula will take with her the experience she has gained making policy, interacting in a committee, organizing scientific events, and budgeting her time. Paula started working toward her master's degree in oceanography in 1992 and will graduate this spring. Any volunteers to replace her?
Ph.D. student in oceanography
All graduate students in oceanography at TAMU are members of the Oceanography Graduate Council (OGC), led by president Craig Cooper. Craig joined the chemical oceanography program as a Ph.D. student in 1992. Different levels of participation in OGC include an executive board of four officers, two representatives from each section in the department (biological, chemical, geological, and physical), two at-large representatives, and at-large members. Any student may participate in OGC meetings to generate ideas or just to be informed. "That is a very important involvement level," says Craig, "to be aware, to give support or to be critical of something."
"One of the missions of OGC is service to the students," explains Craig. Since 1991, over thirty students have received OGC minigrants and approximately $5,000 have been awarded to students to attend meetings, present papers, and conduct otherwise unfunded research. OGC also sponsors social gatherings in which students, faculty, and staff can mingle in a relaxed atmosphere, promoting a more cohesive department. Through OGC, students aid the visibility of TAMU oceanography while raising funds by selling shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and mugs that carry our logo. "OGC has activities planned to reach outside our building and become a resource to the community," Craig says. This year's calendar includes a beach clean-up campaign with local boy and girl scouts, as well as visits to local high schools.
Craig sees his involvement in OGC as a learning experience. He invests approximately ten hours per week mostly talking to students, faculty, and administrators gathering ideas and discussing ways to follow through. "The management skills I have developed as OGC president are great training for the post-graduate world, when our responsibilities will at least double," he says. Craig explains that oceanography students recently joined the department's effort to review its policies and design a strategic plan for the next five years. Student representatives participate with faculty in the Computer Planning Committee (Luiz Fernandes), the Academic Advisory Council (Célia Villac), and the Strategic Planning Committee (Matt Colmer). Craig himself participated in the Department Head Search Committee last year, and is currently in the College of Geosciences Graduate Council and on a departmental Faculty Search Committee. "Students' ideas, perspectives, and experiences play a role in the decision-making process in our department," Craig says. This is why it is so important that all students get involved, one way or another. The more ideas we have, the better we can evaluate the best course of action.
Oceanography, Texas A&M University
Updated July 24, 1995