SGPS executive candidates explain their vision for next year in Q&A

SGPS executive candidates share their platforms, prior experience

Many of the candidates cited the pandemic as a pressing concern for the SGPS.
Credit: 
Supplied.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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, Master’s of Science and Epidemiology of Public Health Sciences

Past Experience

SGPS President 2020-21 

Platform summary

My platform summary, unfortunately, is very similar to last year, especially because there is so little that could become reality due to COVID-19. It was more about putting out fires and being more reactionary. We were able to start [a lot of things], but I am not satisfied with their conclusion yet.

  1. The main thing is fee transparency within the administration. So, charging things like the ARC fee, making sure we see the breakdown of where that [actually] goes. You know, 50 per cent goes to student-athletes, 25 per cent goes to upkeep—we want to see where that fee goes.
  2. The other thing is we were able to see the reduction of PhD international tuition to [the same rate as] domestic [tuition]. We are hoping to look at Master’s international tuition, trying to get that down to domestic as well this year. Specifically, for Master’s research students.
  3. The other thing we have been working on this year is the idea of transparency within the SGPS. So, holding regular town halls, open office hours, making sure students know where they can get information is really important and continues from my platform from last year. 

Why did you decide to run?

There are several reasons. I want to be able to provide some sort of stability and assist in any way I can. I think being able to serve as student body representative means folks will have that consistency, that one person they can go to who [is guaranteed] to answer the question and reach out to the resources they need. So they don’t have to do all the work, because right now people are exhausted. People are really, really tired and I want to make things easier if I can. Additionally, just being so impressed with the resilience of students and I just want to see what more we can do in another year.

What is the most pressing issue facing the SGPS?

One of the most pressing issues facing everything is COVID-19 and the administration’s ability to present information to students in a timely matter. So, we can make these decisions to support livelihood or families or even just academics. Folks need to know what things are going to look like [in September]. Are they going to be able to hold a job within the University? Are they going to be able to enter the country? What steps are going to be taken to make sure that can happen? I think that is definitely one of the bigger challenges. We need to prepare for partial re-opening, half re-opening, no re-opening, and make sure students know what each of those looks like, so they are not surprised when the announcement comes. 

Why should students vote for you?

I think I am uniquely qualified in the way that I have had an opportunity to serve in the past. But I don’t think that is a blanket reason, or a reason why I should be given it again. I think my continued drive and willingness to represent students, rather than the administration, would be the main reason I would hope students put their trust in me. As an SGPS representative, you represent the students, you don’t represent the administration. You are a conduit, an in-between, to liaise for issues. My mindset as a student continues to be that students run this institution. We pay tuition, we run events, we foster the economy within the community, and I think there is a lot that can be done to treat students better. I am not afraid to fight for students.

What issue would you like to tackle first if you are re-elected?

The first issue I would tackle would be continuing to press the University on the idea of fees for services. We are paying a fee for service, and if we aren’t using that service, we shouldn’t be paying that fee, or we shouldn’t be paying all of that fee. Throughout the year, we did receive a refund on athletic fees. It would be my first thing to make sure we had an SGPS representative sitting on that Athletics and Recreation Committee, and we had the ability to speak with the Division of Student Affairs and figure out where we are going from here. 

Vice-Presidential (Finance and Services) Candidate Courtney Bannerman, Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences with a Specialization in Immunology, Inflammation, Microbes PhD ’22 

Past experience:

2018 Field Rep for Microbe and Immunity Stream 

2019 Graduate Student Senator

2020 Vice-President (Graduate)

Platform summary

My platform really has to do with, not only the proper financial management of the resources and finances of the SGPS, but also improving the financial stability of both graduate and professional students. 

  1. This year, a lot of services that charge mandatory fees did see a reduction in the student fees, as the services were being closed down. I would like to take a look at the mandatory fee and see if it is absolutely necessary to increase it to its original amount. Or if we can be more financially responsible with the funds that students are giving us. Everyone is hurting after COVID-19, I’m sure, and it is not appropriate for us to just allow mandatory fees to balloon to the original size. 
  2. In this current year, in my current role, I played a significant part in the reduction of international PhD tuition to a domestic level—which was a goal that was a long time coming and I am very happy I was able to be a part of that. The reality is the reduction in international reduction was not extended to the Master’s students at Queens and so I think that’s really the next big goal.

Why did you decide to run?

Originally, I got involved with student government because I was in a very difficult situation. There was a whole mix up with [the stipend that graduate students get] that caused stress and hardship. I also know from our graduate student wellness survey that the SGPS administers that financial instability is one of the greatest stresses facing graduate and professional students. So, within my role as VP Graduate, I dealt a lot with financial aspects of student life and I really wanted to narrow in and play a more significant role in improving financial stability for students at Queens. 

What is the most pressing issue facing the SGPS?

With the COVID-19 shutdown, a lot of learning was moved online. For a lot of our hands-on professional programs, including Rehab, Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, that did significantly affect the internships and placements they could be a part of. For graduate students, it affected their research abilities. I think that is one of the biggest issues the SGPS faces: getting students hands-on experience or advocating for students to have hands-on experience. Also making sure students can complete their research in a timely manner.  

Why should students vote for you? 

I think one of the really big strengths I have is that I have been with the SGPS in some capacity for two years. I can hit the ground running, there won’t be as steep a learning curve. I have seen the challenges and successes of this role. A benefit that can be offered to students is that there will not be time over the summer where I’ll be learning the ropes. I will already know the things I need to do. The experience I have, not only within the SGPS, but with other finance positions. I am currently the finance director for the Queens Chronic Pain Association, as well the treasurer for the Second Kingston Sparks and Brownies—which is a girl guides group in Kingston. Their budgets are nowhere near as large as the SGPS budget, but it’s those baby steps that will build up those necessary skills. 

What issue would you like to tackle first if you’re elected?

The first thing I would like to do is take a serious look at the SGPS fee. We went through, I believe, a 25 per cent reduction this school year. A lot of our services were at a reduced capacity. I really want to take a look at that mandatory fee and see what the unnecessary conditions were that were added to the fee and what can be cut out and not added back to the fee 

Vice-Presidential (Finance and Services) Candidate, Gina Azer, second-year Juris Doctorate 

Past experience

Academic Coordinator for Biochemistry Undergrad Student Society at the University of Toronto

Vice President of Finance for Biochemistry Undergrad Student Society at the University of Toronto

Platform summary

If I am elected for this role, I will focus on advocating for money-saving opportunities for graduate and professional students and advance the current negotiations initiative by the SGPS within the larger University administrative body.

Why did you decide to run?

My involvement with the Executive team allowed me to sit and vote on very large budget referendums with the Arts and Science Student Society at the University of Toronto. This really got me interested in how such large budgets are managed and how you can really draw the balance and plan for the future, as well as focus on the current student needs. 

What is the most pressing issue facing the SGPS?

One of the pressing issues is how to advocate for the rights of international students, especially the Master’s students. We have managed to advocate for PhD students to get the same domestic fees and our current negotiation is focused on Master’s students, which is something I would like to continue to do. 

Why should students vote for you/what makes you the best candidate? 

I think I can really bring a fresh perspective. I think especially on matters relating to budgets and financing. It is always important to bring a new set of eyes and look at where we can optimize our services or look at more cost-saving opportunities in our budget. I feel strongly about advocating for more flexible health and dental plan. Graduate and professional students have a variety of needs, which aren’t necessarily as homogenous as undergrad students. I believe my background in nursing has specifically prepared me to do that. 

What issue would you like to tackle first if you are elected?

I would like to tackle our Health and Dental Plan. There are several things I have recently noted including that international students are not beneficiaries of travel insurance. 

Vice-Presidential (Professional) Candidate, Jennifer Li, Juris Doctorate first-year

Past experience

Vice-President of Book and Media Student Association for two terms.

Platform Summary

I really want to be the best advocate I can be to professional students because I’m a professional student. I’m a law student and I feel like law students are kind of insular. We only engage with each other. I would like to expand the role law students, maybe professional students in general, have in the union and include more events—just be a better representative for these students and make sure they are included in the scope of the SGPS.

Why did you decide to run?

My job [in this role would be] to ensure the professional students of the SGPS are represented in University affairs, both within the Society and at Queens. That’s really interesting to me because, again, law students are particularly insular and we are not really part of the more general Queen’s community and experience. I want to change that. 

What is the most pressing issue facing the SGPS?

My biggest thing, and this is my thing with any student societies or student unions, [is that] not enough students are aware of the benefits and rights they have by being part of these societies—not a lot of students really care. That’s a huge mistake, because I think at the end of the day, we are working, or the SGPS works as a body to represent these students in order to ensure they have a fair and equitable experience at the University. It is such a waste that grad students aren’t more aware of their rights and the impact they can have on their experiences. I want to increase its awareness. I want to increase involvement by all students with the SGPS and the activities the SGPS is accountable for. 

Why should students vote for you?

I feel like my perspective can really help enhance and complement the already existing talents currently at the SGPS. I know the Exec will probably be different after the election than the Exec this year, but I think a lot of people are running again. I’ve have had a chance to speak to a few of them and read their histories and their contributions. I feel like my past experiences with the University of Toronto and my experience as a professional law student would help me fit in really well with this team. As a law student who really believes in the idea of advocacy, I think advocacy in this role is incredibly important. I will be someone who students will talk through and that is an area I am particularly good at. 

What issue would you like to tackle first if you are elected?

Considering COVID-19 and online schooling, there has been a lot of talk about money-saving for students and being charged fair fees for services we are not using. That is currently something I think the SGPS is looking into and addressing, but I would want to help contribute and ensure any fees for services that are not being used are rightfully reallocated back to students. 

Vice-Presidential (Community) Candidate, Anthony Lomax, PhD third-year Cultural Studies Program

Past experience

2020-21 Vice-President of Campaigns and Community SGPS

2020-21 Cultural Studies Student Co-Chair of the Steering Committee

2019-21 Social Commissioner for SGPS 

2018-19 Representative for Music Faculty on the York University Graduates Students Associations 

Platform Summary

  1. I guess priorities for this coming year would be to keep building a website we started building this year that promotes anti-colonialism and anti-racism advocacy. I would want to work to keep improving that. It was a project that definitely gained steam and took off during the summer when Black Lives Matter protests started again and gained a lot of traction and I don’t want to lose sight of that work. 
  2. I am very privileged to be a part of the Cultural Studies Program and the committee that runs by consensus see faculty members and students working together on areas of program governance. I want to consider ways to make governance more horizontal and less hierarchical. I’m interested in trying to see if there are ways the organization can be sufficiently run while making the SGPS council, which has many more departments, more involved in our processes and governance.
  3. Continue to listen to members. 
  4. Continue to listen to people and build relationships. We did a lot of work this year with PSAC 901—the union for grad students. We have seen a lot of amazing victories come out of this year working together with PSAC 901. Continuing to build that relationship and other student organizations is a big priority for me. 

Why did you decide to run?

I had a good experience last year with the two folks [who] are running again, and I felt there was momentum. I know the three of us are different people, but we have similar priorities. I think we will be able to work together really effectively if all of us are elected again. That momentum and the possibility for some of the priorities to become a reality is the reason I’m running again. I see potential for some of these important changes.

What is the most pressing issue facing the SGPS? 

It’s definitely just pandemic related. Students are financially strapped and stressed, overworked, underappreciated, and the University hasn’t heard students on issues like tuition waiver or other important requests. 

Why should students vote for you?

I have a lot of experience in the SGPS. I have personally done a lot for our ability to communicate with other student organizations like PSAC 901. I am motivated and I am a hard worker. I do the work and I listen carefully to students and I do my best to actually follow up on concerns. 

What issue would you like to tackle first if you are elected?

I want to tackle these bylaws. That is my real focus and drive right now. I want to try to start major discussions on restructuring how the organization is governed. I would like to hopefully, with council’s helps and with the executives’ help, really bring change to how our work is done. I think it could be much more effective. 

Graduate Student Senator Candidate, Emils Matiss, first-year Master’s Student in Neuroscience Studies 

Past experience
2020 Member, Student Leadership Committee (CNS), Queen’s University 2020

Student Representative, Graduate 2020 Committee (CNS), Queen’s University

2019 Chairman of the Board, Latvian National Youth Association of Canada

2017-18 Auditor, Latvian National Youth Association of Canada

2014-16 Treasurer, Latvian National Youth Association of Canada

Platform summary
The submission I made for the SGPS website was very brief: in short, it is justice. I have a strong belief about certain policies and how they affect the well-being of students and their outcome. We have had a lot of discussion in our department about issues students are facing and how to rectify [them]. Some examples are supervisor concerns, who should be and should not be allowed to research a student. 

Why did you decide to run?

I am passionate about instituting change. I believe not enough people who have concerns or opinions about something will take the action to do something about it. I think that was validated by the fact that most positions at the SGPS were running uncontested. I have had a conversation with international students, and they are here with very strict deadlines for how long they can take to complete their degrees, but some of the supervisors are not able to commit to the obligations they have so these students will not be able to complete their degrees. They will also run out of funding. 

What is the most pressing issue facing the SGPS?

I think it would be fair to say disruptions from COVID-19 would be the most pressing issue [facing] the SGPS. All the activities the SGPS could organize have been disrupted by COVID-19 and that reaches everywhere from finances to ensuring the students are being taken care of. 

Why should students vote for you? 

The best candidate is simple: I am the only candidate. But you should vote for me because I do care about the student body and the policies that affect us all. I take a very holistic approach to things. I don’t think simply writing policy and then following [it] strictly is the best practice. There are always exceptional circumstances students may face. A policy may have a certain intention but it could have very drastic negative effects that go against what it may have been designed to do. I believe in evidence-based policy decision as well as a holistic approach. 

What issue would you like to tackle first if you are elected?

I think one of the biggest things that does affect many students is being supervised by a supervisor who does not have proper research training. The most pressing issue is that there are policies that protect students and that they are being supervised by supervisors with proper training for research methods. 

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