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Graduate Student Government VP election highlights fight for graduate student parity

Photo of a gothic stone tower above other stone buildings against a cloudy gray sky in a snowy field.
Graduate College.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Graduate Student Government (GSG) executive committee elections came to a close on Dec. 26. The election had five contested positions, including vice president, communications director, and diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. Incumbent Vice President Christopher Catalano GS won the tight race for VP. 

Following the election, The Daily Princetonian spoke to the VP candidates about the campaign points most important to graduate students, namely, equity with the undergraduate population and improved housing and health care security.


With 275 votes, Catalano edged out opponent Jan Ertl GS, who received 240 — a difference of just 35 votes. In September, former VP Alexandra Bodrova GS stepped down from her position due to unforeseen personal circumstances. The GSG Assembly — the equivalent of the Undergraduate Student Government Senate — held a special election and elected Catalano to serve in her place.

Ertl previously served as the GSG treasurer. Drawing on his experience leading a funding initiative to revitalize graduate student clubs after the pandemic, Ertl told the ‘Prince’ that his VP campaign focused on the day-to-day details of graduate student life. These included regenerating projects that he said “fell under the GSG radar” such as the Buddy Program. First established in 2021, the program paired first-year graduate students with an upper-year mentor to combat “loneliness, isolation, and disconnectedness in the wake of COVID-19.” 

Ertl’s platform also emphasized community-building events, and pushing for transparency by updating outdated GSG legislative documents.

Meanwhile, building on his work as VP in the previous months, Catalano’s campaign focused on achieving parity and equal recognition for graduate students through bigger picture reform in health care, housing, and support for international students. His campaign mirrors previous calls for graduate student recognition, including those from Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU).

In admissions materials, one of Princeton’s major selling points is its unique focus on undergraduate education. However, Princeton’s 3,212 graduate students represent over one-third of the entire student population.

“In reality, this is an undergraduate plus graduate school institution. In culture, though, I totally agree that it’s much more undergraduate focused,” Catalano told ‘the Prince.’


Catalano emphasized graduate students’ value as a point in need of recognition: “If we were to stop teaching classes, Princeton’s US News ranking would plummet … If we stopped doing the research in the labs, what would happen?”

Guaranteed cost-of-living raises and housing 

Before coming to Princeton, Catalano was a master’s student at New York University where the graduate employees union underwent a contract negotiation. After witnessing those negotiations, Catalano came to recognize a need for guaranteed housing and stipend increases for graduate employees — issues that the Princeton’s graduate and postdoctoral scholar unions have petitioned for in the past year. 

Catalano explained to the ‘Prince’ that the University does not have guaranteed pay increases which leads to problems when housing prices increase at a rate greater than stipends.

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 “There’s no security for Princeton [graduate] students.”

The University guarantees on-campus housing to all first-year graduate students, and in practice, Catalano told the ‘Prince’ that many graduate students renew their housing contracts through their third year. On-campus housing options include the Graduate College, University-owned apartments on Dickinson Street, and this year, Walker Hall. Completion of the Meadows Apartments is expected for this spring. 

Graduate students have reported difficulties in securing on-campus housing, and, according to Catalano, those who turn to off-campus housing have to contend with high costs of living or longer commutes. 

“One of the things that I think is a pretty glaring issue with housing is that they built New College West a year or two ago, to increase the undergraduate student population, so they were more concerned with increasing the undergraduate student population than already guaranteeing housing for the graduate [students] they had,” Catalano said.

Two extra meals program

Both Catalano and Ertl highlighted a disparity between undergraduates and graduates in terms of food security, pointing to the Two Extra Meals Program as an example. Currently, Campus dining grants two meals in residential dining halls per week to all undergraduate juniors and seniors regardless of whether they have a University meal plan. 

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Catalano referenced last spring’s dining pilot which considered increasing this number to five free meals a week for juniors and seniors, among other dining changes.

“We’re not even asking for five free meals a week,” Catalano said. “Princeton was looking at increasing the free meals a week to five for the undergrads before even giving us the two that the undergrads already have. With every decision that Princeton makes, we come second.”

For Catalano, the two free meals would support graduate students with unpredictable schedules or who work long hours, referencing his own experience in a biology lab. 

“How nice would it be to be able to just walk over to the dining hall and get a free meal twice a week? We know Princeton can afford it. We know they already do it for the undergrads. And, it would really help alleviate food insecurity for grad students,” he said.

Improved dental, vision, and mental health care

While undergraduates can choose to opt in to the Student Health Plan (SHP) or continue using private insurance, graduate students are automatically enrolled in the SHP upon paying tuition. Catalano’s campaign called for free vision and dental insurance on the SHP. 

“Something I learned in my last term on GSG was that Princeton actually manages the whole health care plan,” he noted. “Aetna is the healthcare insurer, but Princeton is actually the one who’s providing all the finances for that and sets all of the copays and all of the rates.”

According to the University Health Services website, fees for the optional dental and vision health insurance plans vary from year to year. The 2023–24 annual 12-month cost for the vision plan is $58 per student, and $78 for the dental plan. 

Additionally, Catalano cited mental health care as a major concern for graduate students and said he hopes for sustained collaboration between GSG’s Mental Health Initiative and the USG Mental Health Committee.

“All grad students have to take this course [in] responsible conduct of research, and in one of the classes we read this study about the experiences of graduate students,“ he recounted. “What they found in this study was that mental health is the number one issue that graduate students face … If we know that mental health is such a crisis, such an important issue, then Princeton can do more to help alleviate those concerns.”

Catalano said that he and other graduate students enjoy mental health care events and gatherings on campus, but what he thinks is going to make the most “tangible difference” in mental health care is “better health care coverage — not these events, but actual coverage.”

Catalano specifically mentioned the $20 per visit copay within the University’s Exclusive Mental Health Provider Network. 

“We’re all people, we need health care, we need housing, we want stability and security. I think that’s what it comes down to … These are basic fundamental human needs, not just graduate student needs.”

Elisabeth Stewart is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

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