A previous article in Inside Higher Ed encouraged graduate students to participate in their college or university’s governance, because such participation can get more voices heard, help graduate students develop professional competencies and improve personal well-being. But as members of University of Delaware’s graduate student government over the past three years—one of us, William, served as president and the other, Ioannis, as vice president of student affairs—we found that simply joining a graduate student government is not enough. If you are in graduate student leadership, or considering doing so, we’d like to share advice based on our experience to help you make the most of the opportunities presented to you.
Pursue Early Victories
We began our work during the summer session between our election and the start of our public meetings the next academic year. We had inherited a petition, signed by more than 200 students and student leaders, requesting the creation of more interfaith spaces on campus. We did not yet know how to leverage our distinct access to senior administrators to enact change, but we did know how to schedule meetings.
After a few introductions with two administrators in the university’s student life division, we heard the following: budgets are shrinking, space on campus is limited and highly competitive, people have been trying to get a dedicated interfaith space for decades. While we felt deflated at that moment, we kept true to our original goal: to take this petition and make it a reality.
A series of meetings would follow to answer key questions. How much space would really be needed? How could it cater to students of all spiritualities and faiths? How would ablution and privacy work exactly? By the end of the summer, progress seemed to have stalled, especially when one of our senior leaders asked how exactly metrics on the room’s usage could be tracked—a question that didn’t exactly gel with a previous conversation on privacy. We had to take our community’s voices seriously, though, so we responded with an oft-quoted Kevin Costner refrain: “If you build it, they will come.”
The ultimate result of our persistence: a space was identified and a budget secured to furnish the room before the start of the fall semester. This key moment defined us as student leaders, because it pushed the boundaries of what we had believed was possible to achieve.
Through this experience, we learned to work closely with senior administrators, but we also recognized the importance of understanding our constituency’s concerns, laying out a plan to address those concerns and then negotiating to ensure all sides find the proposed solution agreeable. More important, securing the interfaith space before the start of the academic year gave us an early victory to build on. (And people did, indeed, come.) It provided us much-needed momentum and instilled in us the feeling that if we could change one room, we could change the entire campus.
Learn Who’s in Charge of What
Often, in higher education institutions, we tend to resort to using the institution’s name for all the conversations on challenges, issues and initiatives. For example, as more and more universities across the country work on increasing student enrollment, you might encounter the following statement: “The university needs to build more student housing.” We found that such shorthand fails because it makes pinpointing accountability impossible. In the course of our initiatives, we discovered that to succeed in any student government initiative, you must have a clear understanding of which unit, office or individual is responsible for taking specific actions.
To acquire that understanding, familiarize yourself with your institution’s organizational chart to determine who does what and whom to contact about various responsibilities and funding. You can avoid wasting time by ensuring you are directing your questions to the appropriate people. You will, for example, steer clear of asking the provost noncurricular questions or faculty members who are not in decision-making positions about stipends.
Also, with a better understanding of institutional workflows, confidence and power naturally arise. Student governments are often seen as add-ons to the student experience—good for marketing that the administration listens to student voices. Yet some institutions bet on the fact that student governments will not be able to figure out organizational nuances—that they will not take the time to investigate organizational hierarchies or the bylaws and procedures that govern almost every aspect of university life. If you do take the time to familiarize yourself, however, you will realize the potential effectiveness of your advocacy and the distinct role that student governments play in the university’s field of power.
Show Up, Show Up, Show Up
As a student leader at any institution, you’ll be invited to participate in various committees, councils, task forces and so on that make up the shared governance of a university. Keeping up with all those invitations is probably one of the hardest things you will have to do. The success of any negotiations, or the result of a proposed solution to student issues, lies in showing up in meetings, developing and sticking to a set of core priorities and understanding the intricacies of university politics.
Both of us have attended hundreds of meetings in our tenures as student leaders. Our understanding and knowledge of how things work, as well as our clarity in how to proceed in various conversations spanning myriad topics, were enhanced and strengthened by our consistent presence in meetings and events on and off the campus. Attending internal and external committee meetings—as well as working groups, task forces and trustee and regents’ meetings—ensures you stay abreast of your institution’s latest developments, knowledgeable about decision-makers and their priorities, and well informed on how to drive your initiatives forward.
Showing up is easier said than done. Graduate students’ schedules are overwhelming and busy even during so-called breaks, so time management is crucial. Research obligations, coursework and teaching commitments can easily dominate your schedule, leading you to feel overwhelmed and spread too thin across these varying responsibilities. You simply cannot be everywhere and do everything.
That is a tough problem to solve—one that will disproportionately impact some groups of students more than others. We all, however, can ease the stress of showing up by developing and sticking to a set of core priorities. The two of us chose to focus on graduate housing, stipends and childcare during our tenure, so we knew that no matter where we showed up, those would be the topics of conversation.
To manage your time while also maximizing your representation at key meetings, you should also delegate. Although holding different positions, we have worked closely together and with other student leaders on various initiatives—strategizing our main talking points, coordinating our advocacy efforts and simply deciding who will attend what meetings as a powerful strategy against burnout.
Engage in Teamwork and Networking
Universities are big and complex organizations that consist of different divisions and department, all managed by a carefully designed hierarchical structure of people. Most big projects on a campus are collaborative efforts that include many units, so it’s important to reach out and build strong relationships and rapport with all the different constituencies. Volunteer to support various institutional efforts, attend campus events or simply reach out to key stakeholders for informational interviews. How well you know someone, as well as how well they know you, can make a difference in having your message heard. Moreover, getting the opportunity to address or persuade university policy makers becomes easier when your relationships with them are built on shared experiences.
But why stop there? A vital aspect of effective student leadership is staying connected and engaged beyond your university as well as within it. You can engage with the local community—including nonprofit organizations or the mayor’s office—to better understand the political intricacies behind some of the decisions at your institution and demonstrate that you are a passionate and reliable member of the community.
Relationship building is also a long-term investment, as both your personal and professional futures can benefit from an extensive network. Such relationships with university leaders and administrators can lead to academic and career opportunities, better access to resources and the chance to have a positive impact on your community. Although building such strong and meaningful relationships takes time and effort, the payoff is well worth it.
In conclusion, student leaders will always be challenged to find a way to balance their academic commitments with their leadership aspirations. You can ease the stress, however, by following our advice—scoring an early victory, understanding the complexity of your institution, showing up and building a network. This advice will work across institutions, but we should mention that the faculty and professional community at the University of Delaware (from which Ioannis recently graduated) gave us the chance to develop a range of important skills and qualities. We learned how to run a meeting, strategize and implement ambitious proposals for the betterment of the graduate student experience. On top of that, they enabled us to have experiences that helped us improve our skills in critical thinking, problem-solving and proposal writing, as well as public speaking, team management and relationship building. Such skills can be applied in any field and will serve us well throughout our professional careers.
As we write this piece, we both find ourselves at the threshold of career transitions. We cannot help but share stories and reflect on the graduate student government memories that brought us this far in our professional development. As we reflect on the lessons behind each story, however, we remain convinced that this article can cover only a small part of what student leadership can do for your career and your life.