This year, graduate students have sought to unionize, creating a new body to represent their interests. This would serve as an alternative to an older body, the Graduate Student Government (GSG). From teaching loads to health insurance and international student opportunities, the GSG has had a number of missions since its foundation in 1989. Executive board members noted that graduate students’ interests and social environments are often overlooked by the University, making the GSG’s goal critical.
Over the years, the body has given out candy in front of Clio Hall to advocate for dental insurance, worked with administrators to change University policy to ensure Curricular Practical Training accessibility for all graduate international students, and ran a Cuisine of the Month program to create interdepartmental affinity groups.
The GSG consists of 13 executive members and more than 40 student representatives from every graduate department, academic program, and recognized graduate student group.
Foundations as a social space
In a survey by a 1988 predecessor of the GSG, 65 percent of graduate students reported they were “outraged” with the state of the social scene of the graduate student body. These worries were a driving factor behind the foundation of a student government body, then called the Graduate Student Union (GSU). Following its founding in 1989, the GSU began improving the social scene for graduate students. Though the social committee did not have any members by Sept. 13, 1989, this didn’t stop the GSU from holding an inaugural party. The party resulted in $99 of debt, and members reflected on a DJ who was “not all that great” and a brief interruption due to a bomb threat.
Nevertheless, the party was considered a rousing success, with 250 attendees and plans made for future events of the same variety that would be open to the wider University community. Parties were such an integral part of the early GSU activities that they comprised about half of their allocated budget and around a third of their available funds.
Another significant portion of their annual budget went towards the distribution of a characterful graduate student life handbook. From local restaurant recommendations to the description of Princeton as “a wealthy New York ‘burb,’ where sleek business men park their Mercedes at the train station, and their sleek wives are ladies who lunch,” the handbook served as an guide for new graduate students.
It also served as a promotion of the services the GSU provided, such as optional dental coverage exclusive to graduate students. The “HealthPlex” plan was an organized effort to bring down dental costs for graduate students, as the University’s health plan did not cover dental and optical care. Funding these initiatives was a modest five dollar fee, collected from each graduate student annually, with the GSG estimating a budget of $8,500 after collecting fees from the 1,700 graduate students enrolled at the time.
While not its primary goal, political activism was still integral to early GSG initiatives. In October 1989, attacks on students at the University of San Carlos (USC) in Guatemala prompted the Princeton Area Committee on Latin America to ask for the GSU, among other prominent University figures and groups, to endorse a letter of support for USC to be run in Prensa Libre. The letter called on the GSG to publicly “deplore the violent attacks” against USC and an associated University Students Association, as well as wishing for the safe release of hostages and an “impartial investigation” into the perpetrators of the attack. The GSG obliged, committing to its endorsement in an Oct. 11, 1989 meeting and dedicating $17 to distributing the endorsement.
In addition to its occasional endorsements, the GSG reserved space within the organization for special interest groups on campus. Groups including the Graduate Women’s Alliance, the Black Graduate Caucus, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliances were asked to select a representative in order to ensure their representation within the GSU. Additionally, discussions during the ratification of the GSU’s constitution indicated a desire to “reach out to minorities” and promote a sense of “unity” within the graduate school.
A desire for a bigger role
According to the GSG’s official website, the Princeton Graduate Student Union changed its name to the Graduate Student Government in October 1999, alongside major structural reforms. The reform aimed to “highlight the organization’s representative character and growingly active role in shaping University policy through appointments to University decision-making bodies.” The goal was to play a role in University policy closer to that of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG).
Lauren Hale GS ’03, the last chair of the GSU, led a ratification process for a new constitution in October 2000, acquiring the right to make nominations for other committees of the Youth Council, including the Priorities Committee, which is a subcommittee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) and provides advisory budgets to the president.
Before the change of the constitution, Hale described GSG’s purpose as more for community building instead of direct engagement with the administration.
“The new constitution allowed the GSG Assembly to nominate graduate students for important leadership positions across the university,” Hale told the Daily Princetonian. “This formalized the relationship between GSG and the University administration.”
“Our goals were to improve resources and quality of life for graduate students, especially because at the time, we felt Princeton was very heavily focused on the undergraduate experience, and it may still be the case,” Hale added.
Karthick Ramakrishnan GS ’02, who worked with Hale on the GSG Executive Committee, worked to inaugurate direct elections of the GSG president during his time from 2000–2003. Until then, only members of GSG had elected the president.
“It’s important for the President to know that they represent the entire graduate student body,” Ramakrishnan said, “and not just the other officers or representatives.”
Ramakrishnan also supports an initiative to create two new positions on the Board of Trustees for young graduate school alumni, a similar role to the undergraduate Young Alumni Trustee, which was established in 1969.
“In recent years, graduate students have been increasingly involved in student life and in the governance of Princeton University,” he wrote in the proposal. “Adding two Young Graduate Trustee positions will enhance the ability of the University to meet its short-term and long-term goals involving student life, academic affairs, and other matters pertaining to the governance of the University.”
Ramakrishnan continues to support graduate students as the president of the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni, and he said he hoped to reduce inequities between graduate and undergraduate students.
“Some of the inequities are the result of design choices that the University could easily address,” Ramakrishnan said. “For example, the pageantry of opening exercises, including the Pre-Rade and student awards, are available only to undergraduate students. Having opening exercises for the entire community, while still having separate events for undergraduate and graduate students, would help graduate students feel welcome and part of ‘one Princeton.’”
A focus on work environment
Lauren Do Feldman, who served as Academic Affairs chair, vice president, and president from 2019–2022, recently received the APGA Graduate Student Service award for her work. One instance was reducing the Department of Psychology’s “inequitable graduate teaching loads.”
“When I started service, graduate students in psychology — which is classified as a natural science at Princeton — needed to teach a full load of 39 precept hours if they didn’t have outside funding,” Do Feldman said. “In comparison, other social science departments like sociology require six precept hours regardless of a student's outside funding.”
Through a series of petitions and policy memos, the psychology Ph.D. student succeeded in reducing her department’s maximum teaching load by 40 percent — down to 24 hours. Additionally, her administration extended the health insurance period for graduate students on medical leave.
“It used to be that if you went on medical leave, you lost your student health insurance, which was completely incompatible with medical recovery,” she said. “So we on the executive board did our research, repeatedly advocated for change, and ultimately worked with the grad school and the SHP office to extend health insurance for grad students on medical leave by six months, with the option to extend for another six months after that.”
Do Feldman also reflected that her experiences taught her institutional literacy, who the administrators were, and how to communicate with them.
Current GSG initiatives
Two decades after revising the Constitution, the GSG is still advocating for more change. Last year, the Executive Board added two seats for an International Students chair and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion chair. Paola Moscariello GS, the International Students chair, is pushing for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) to be provided in all departments, which is a specified type of training international students (i.e., students on an F-1 visa) must take before partaking in Princeton fellowships and internships.
“CPT allows international students to take internships, but access varies across university departments,” Moscariello said. “Some departments don’t have that, which creates discrimination between domestic students and international students for internship opportunities.”
In response, the administration created a universal policy for graduate schools to provide CPT for their students.
Anna Jacobson GS, the current president of the GSG, describes the organization as the mouthpiece of the graduate student body.
“Our real job is to listen to students, to direct them to existing resources where appropriate, and to work with the graduate school at Princeton University,” Jacobson said. “We make sure graduate student voices are heard right alongside our undergraduate counterparts, and that the University knows how to support us.”
Chloe Lau is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’
Vitus Larrieu is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’
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