SGPS executive candidates make their case to students in Q&A

SGPS Executive candidates share their platforms, prior experience and vision in this Q&A

SGPS candidates make their case in Q&As.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

This week, candidates running to be the next executive of the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) sat down with The Journal. Here’s what they had to say:

Presidential Candidate Justine Aman, MSc ’21 

Past Experience:

Current Director at the Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC).

Platform Summary:

  1. JDUC Renovation

I want to continue the momentum from this year’s team, especially in regard to the JDUC renovation and all the work they’ve been putting in to make sure the SGPS is represented and has spaces for everything that it needs, whether it be lounge space, office space, etc.

  1. Grant Programming

I want to look into the possibility of grant programming for graduate and professional students who are looking to get involved with extracurricular activities but can’t afford to cover things like the police check fee, simple sign up fees, etc. I want students to be able to get involved without financial burden, especially when they’re just trying to give back to the community.

What made you decide to run?

Honestly, I think it’s probably been my experience at the SHRC and growing through the management there. It’s really tightly knit with the SGPS because we’re under their umbrella. I see how that organization has run, and how Council is run, and it’s just inspirational to see you’re able to contribute to 4000-plus students’ lives on a daily basis, and I think just having that “in” with the SHRC was integral in introducing me to what it would have meant to be part of the SGPS.

What is the most pressing issue that the SGPS faces now, and how do you plan to tackle it?

I think that question could be answered differently depending on who you’re asking, because a pressing issue for individuals is going to be different depending on what impacts them the most. The most talked-about issues right now are tuition rates, especially for international students, PhD and MSc research students, looking at tuition costs, seeing if those are something we can adjust in the future, as well as the divestment from fossil fuels, I know is a conversation that’s going on between a lot of students, and then the JDUC renovation and making sure we have space during the actual renovation process. So it depends on who you ask.

What would you say? What are you most passionate about?

I’d say that you can’t operate without infrastructure, so making sure that the JDUC renovation goes well and that the SGPS has what it needs. Coming off of the work of this current council will be great, because they represented the SGPS very, very well, but just making sure that during that transition, nothing gets lost, and all the needs are met.

Why do you think you’re running unopposed? Why is there not a lot of interest in running?

I think it’s super important for democracy to have opposed positions, and hopefully during this upcoming year, we can [gauge] interest in not just the President position, but all the VP positions as well. When you have multiple people running, then you get to really choose what you want and what you’re for. Hopefully, that’s something that we can wash up some more interest for in the coming years.

Vice-President (Graduate) candidate Courtney Bannerman, Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences (DBMS), PhD ’22 — Vice-President Candidate (Graduate)

Past Experience:

Graduate school:

Current Graduate Student Senator for the SGPS

DSC Field Rep, 2018-2019

Undergraduate:

Residence Facilitator

WISE (Women in Science and Engineering)

Platform Summary:

  1. Financial stability

Graduate students do a lot of work and they’re really the backbone behind all the research happening at Queen’s, and a lot of them do have issues with the way their stipend is paid out [and] the transparency of when they’re going to get paid, paying off tuition. I want to increase transparency between the departments and their students about when they’re getting paid, how much they’re getting paid, and why they’re paying this amount in tuition.

  1. Increased social events

One of the things I always hear from students is, “Where do you actually meet other graduate students?” Some departments do a really good job of hosting social events for their students, but for some of them, there’s not as many. I really would love to see either increased support from the SGPS to departmental student councils, or just the SGPS being able to run more casual, relaxed events for graduate students to get to know each other.

  1. Career planning and networking

A lot of the career planning and job networking events are run through student groups and clubs, which is great, but I think also the SGPS and School of Graduate Studies has a responsibility to help prepare their graduate students for the workforce.

What made you decide to run?

I was the graduate student senator, and I really enjoyed that position—I really enjoyed being able to talk to different students, hear their concerns. The current VP Graduate has  made some amazing changes to graduate student life, and I just really want to continue that and make sure we’re continually improving the graduate student experience.

What is the most pressing issue that the SGPS faces now and how do you plan to tackle it?

I think the international student tuition is a really important one. One of the sub-committees I sit on for the Senate is the Queen’s University Senate Board Advisory Committee, and they plan a big event every year for the Board of Trustees and the Senate to get together and talk about a big issue. The big issue they’re talking about this year is internationalization. What is somewhat disheartening to me is that they talk a lot about increasing Queen’s international presence, which I think is great, and we should always be increasing opportunities for our students to do internationally-based research. But I think if you’re going to try and push for an international presence and draw in all these international graduate students, you have to take care of them, and you have to make sure you’re not putting them in the difficult position of financial hardship.

What do you have that your opponent doesn’t, and on the other hand, what is your opponent’s biggest strength?

One of my strengths is that I’ve been very heavily involved with the SGPS for the past year, through my role on the SGPS council, but I’m a graduate peer support volunteer as well. I’ve been able to see behind-the-scenes of how there’s all these connections between the Senate, the Board of Trustees, the School of Graduate Studies, the SGPS, and all the individual departments. I think one of my important roles would be to facilitate all this communication and to make sure that if graduate students have concerns, they know the right person to go to. Part of my training as a graduate peer support volunteer is to understand the resources available to grad students so that I can properly direct them to that.

Based on what I’ve heard about my opponent and his platform, he has some amazing experience within the Engineering department. I talk a lot about the experiences of international students and their satisfaction, but he’s an international student so he really has that inside ability. I think either one of us would be a great fit for the role. Make sure you vote, because that’s always the important thing.

Vice-President (Graduate) candidate Rohit Shukla, Civil Engineering PhD, ’22 

Past Experience:

Current President of Association of Indian Graduate Students Queen’s - AIGSQ

Current SGPS Executive of Civil Engineering Department

Platform Summary:

  1. International student tuition

While being in leadership positions, I’ve learned that there are a lot of issues relating to international students. Not to say that I will focus on only international students, but one of my main goals is to give them a louder voice. If you look at the international student communities at U of T or McGill, for example, their international presence is a lot stronger than Queen’s. One of the reasons for this is that there is a large gap in the tuition fees of the international and domestic tuition here, so I’ve been voicing this through one of the groups called International Student Working Group. I created a campaign all over Queen’s.

  1. Graduate space and presence

The other thing is, I find that there’s less graduate space on campus, so I’ll be focusing on the amount of graduate space. I see a lot more presence of undergraduate students at events—the graduate students don’t come out of their labs. My goal would be to enhance graduate student presence, since they should play an equal part in the society of Queen’s. Their involvement would be encouraged.

  1. Limited research time

Graduate students have limited funding, and funding for a limited time. For example, if someone is doing a master’s, he or she has two years. If someone is doing a PhD, he or she has four years. After four years, everything stops. So if your research is delayed and you just need a few months more, you’re stuck without funding. That’s a very bad situation for a scholar: always being pushed to complete research on time.

  1. Mental health support

Due to this pressure people have to finish, there are a lot of mental health concerns in graduate programs. I would also like to increase mental health support on campus. If you’re facing a lot of stress and feeling down due to this pressure or your research results or anything, I’d like to have a platform of guidance counsellors to support your mental health.

What made you decide to run?

When I came here, one of the issues I faced is that being an international student, you’re not aware of the situation in a different country. The funding and contract is all assigned, and when I came here, I realized that whatever was given to me was not sufficient. I stood up for my issues—that the funding and contract [are] not sufficient—so I want to help find ways to negotiate these funding issues for international students. From there I started, then I got involved in a lot of activities on campus, and through that, I participated in the International Student Working Group and increased my passion and involvement.

What is the most pressing issue that the SGPS faces now and how do you plan to tackle it?

The most pressing issue is the structural barrier of competing a thesis on time. Whatever the structural barriers are, they should be removed, or there should be a backup, a Plan B, for students. There should be a plan, a step-by-step timeline for completing the thesis, that should be worked out with each graduate coordinator or supervisor. Some departments have plans like this, but I’d like to implement these timelines for all the departments so that they don’t run the risk of going beyond their time.

What do you have that your opponent doesn’t, and on the other hand, what is your opponent’s biggest strength?

What separates me is that I can represent the international community better because I’ve been an international student and I know the problems much better than her. The other thing is that there is no one representing the international body on SGPS Council; all are domestic students. If a person from the international community comes onto the board, it will increase diversity and inclusion, as we always promote at Queen’s.

Her biggest strength is that she is already on the SGPS Senate: she knows people on SGPS, all the executives. I haven’t been an executive on SGPS—even though I’m a representative—so she knows things better from that angle.

Vice-President (Professional) candidate John Jeyaratnam, Law ’21

Past Experience:

Started an informal squash group for law students, which became the Queen’s Law Squash Society.

Platform Summary:

  1. Developing grad student network

Professional students are a little bit different from undergraduate students, especially since they’re more career-minded. This would allow people to share similar values and similar outlooks. That needs to be fostered a little bit more.

  1. Funding cuts

We’re facing a problem with funding cuts in law school, and I’m sure that reverberates throughout the various professional programs. One of my pillars is to make sure that resources not adversely affected, and that needs are being met. There tends to be a different set of needs for the professional students in terms of applying to jobs, getting support, and getting through the program.

  1. Open communication

There needs to be better communication between the students and the SGPS in a professional capacity. I think I’d like to open the doors a little more, be more engaged with professional students, and just hear their needs on a more individual level and see how that can be facilitated with changes.

What made you decide to run?

This is my first time living in Kingston, and since I love boxing, I went outside the Queen’s community to find the Kingston Boxing Club. There, I found different people from various programs were coming together, interacting and networking, sharing similar interests. That’s something that is lacking in our faculty, and I’m sure people in other faculties feel the same way. In first year, you’re excited and you meet people; by second year, focus tends to shift the individualistic aspects of the program as people start to develop their own groups and things become slightly incubated. I want to broaden and expand that. I felt like I could do it because I’m a resourceful person, challenges excite me, and I like being pushed to do things and be creative, so I thought this would be a perfect fit.

What is the most pressing issue that the SGPS faces now and how do you plan to tackle it?

Personally,I think most pressing matters are the lack of funding. There are a lot of underlying issues there that aren’t being addressed. I know how my faculty is affected by it, and I’m sure others are similarly affected. You wouldn’t know it unless you had the experience of being in the program prior to the cuts and then subsequent to the cuts.

Something else important is going green: the school is trying to divest from using fossil fuels. I think that that’s another pressing matter because it’s important to make steps toward being more sustainable and having less of an impact on the environment. That’s compounded with the additional constraints we’re facing with funding cuts and things like that.

My approach is going to be moderation. Consensus needs to be made on both sides because, as we learn in law school, to every side there are two sides, and you have to hear both sides. For both of these issues, we need to provide the same level of services that are currently in place, if not enhancing them and making sure that we’re taking the right steps and not remaining stagnant on the issues that are coming up on the horizon. The need for environment protection is here now. There needs to be balance, and I’ll address these issues in a more balanced approach so that we’re not doing injustice to either cause.

Why do you think you’re running unopposed? Why is there not a lot of interest in running?

I think part of the reason is because the different faculties are so divided, and each one has their own student body that governs their needs. A lot of students are unable to see the influence we can have if we come together as a graduate student body. People want to make changes to their own faculty, but they’re not able to see that there are similar issue affecting all the faculties that converge. Because I’ve been on teams that represented different fields and disciplines, I’m able to see that there are actually more similarities than differences, which is why I want to take leadership and I want to effect change.

Vice-President (Finances and Services) candidate Tamara Mitterer, Law ’21

Past Experience:

Current Law School Society SGPS Representative

Platform Summary:

  1. Improving transparency

Right now the SGPS financial statements are posted online and accessible to the public. That said, I don’t know if everyone can read them. However, more importantly, there’s a portion of students who don’t even know what SGPS is or what it does, so I think there just needs to be more education on that aspect generally, before students even know where their money is going.

  1. Responsible investments

SGPS long-term investments are going to mature in June 2020. Part of my role will be to reinvest those, both in something that’s low-risk but has a decent rate of return. Along with that is the fact that the SGPS has already voted to divest funds, so when this reinvestment occurs, that goal will be kept in line.

  1. Community commitment

A large part of the reason why I decided to attend Queen’s is that when I came here to check it out, I loved the diversity and strong sense of community. I definitely want to promote that, and I hope to achieve that through the SGPS bursary program, as well as increased collaboration with faculties and departments that the SGPS represents. Another aspect of that is the Health and Dental Plan. I really want to re-evaluate both what it offers students as far as benefits go, and how much it’s costing.

What made you decide to run?

My position as LSS and SGPS rep definitely played a role. I’ve seen the differences in how LSS and SGPS run. [I also] met more of executive committees, and it’s kind of inspired me. But more than that, the position ties in both my interests of health and corporate finance. There’s obviously the finance aspect of the role, but also the Health and Dental Plan is a huge responsibility in the role as well, and I feel like my health background ties all that together.

What is the most pressing issue that the SGPS faces now and how do you plan to tackle it?

I think the first most pressing issue is the Student Choice Initiative. That said, I don’t necessarily know if it is something we can do anything about. I think it might have some impact for some students as far as creating more financial need for them, since these fees become mandatory again.

Another pressing issue for students is that the University is currently amending its alcohol policy, and this might create issues especially during Orientation Week. It may impact what kind of events faculties can hold [and] how the SGPS can insure them. The SGPS has already been talking about it, and we took a stance on it and wrote a letter. I think at this point, it’s just a matter of waiting to see what the University will decide because I think the SGPS already voiced their opinion.

Why do you think you’re running unopposed? Why is there not a lot of interest in running?

I think that’s two-fold. I think it kind of goes back to the issue that not everyone knows what the SGPS is and what it does. On the other side of things, students are really busy, and it can be a challenge to take on more when you have so many commitments. On another level too, it can be scary. Especially if you haven’t been on student government before, there’s rules you have to follow, you have to debate and campaign, and I think that can be challenging for students.

Vice-President (Community) candidate Anthony Lomax, Cultural Studies PhD

Past Experience:

Social Commissioner for the SGPS

Platform Summary:

  1. Commissioner/Executive Meetings

One of the most important parts of my role is being responsible for the commissioners, so I think as social commissioner, I was really lucky to work under the current VP (Community). One thing she did which was really valuable this year was create a meeting between the commissioners and the executive. We only had one of those meetings this year but it was really helpful in terms of clearly understanding some of the issues that both sides were facing and then finding ways to work better together. I’d like to implement those on a more regular, monthly basis.

  1. Funding cuts to commissioners

There was a wage cut for commissioners last year because of the Student Choice Initiative. I want to make sure that commissioners are paid fairly for the amount of work that they do. This also came with a cut to some deputy positions that were around prior to this year. I think, as commissioners, we’ve found that it’s pretty untenable to do the amount of work that’s required for the amount we’re being paid, and so I’d like to make sure that commissioners are paid fairly moving forward.

What made you decide to run?

I saw a need. I decided to run when I saw that nobody was running, to be completely honest. I think it’s a really valuable position and there’s a lot of important work done by the VP (Community) and there could be a lot more work done. I was excited by the rest of the pool, also; all the people running bring really exciting, new energy to the team and they’ve excited me to run.

Anything you’d like to add?

I think the SGPS does a lot of important work for a lot of different people on campus, and I don’t think that people to whom that work matters the most even know about the SGPS or the work that they’re always doing. I saw this on a few other applicants’ positions for different jobs this election season, but the entire idea of transparency and communication to the student body is really important. For me, that means opening the lines of communication between the executive and representatives, who already have their feet in the door, who know people, and can be kind of our voice on the ground. That would be a great thing to foster.

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