The Graduate and Professional Student Association at Penn State not only aims to represent the interests of graduate and professional students, but to create a community where they can learn important skills for the professional world.
GPSA is separate from the Coalition of Graduate Employees, but the organizations recently worked together in hopes of convincing Penn State to commit to additional coronavirus-related policies.
Katie Warczak, the GPSA secretary, said the organization has helped her learn how to enact meaningful change.
“My first year in GPSA, I was a graduate council delegate, as well as a member of the GPSA Assembly, and I was able to see change is a slow process at Penn State, and happens largely by committee,” Warczak (graduate-English and African studies) said.
Warczak said joining GPSA was an eye-opening experience for her. Here, she learned she could inspire change by helping to write GPSA legislation that was sent to university administrators, who then determine policy.
Although Warczak said the legislation isn’t always as effective as members wish, especially this year given the coronavirus pandemic, Warczak said GPSA can still help others on its own.
“As a recognized student organization with a budget, GPSA is able to provide assistance to graduate and professional students,” Warczak said, “whether by providing entertainment through events like our annual Grad Cup, professional development opportunities such as writing bootcamp and headshots.”
Warczak said she loves that GPSA has the power to make long-term change.
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When the pandemic started in March, GPSA was able to help students who found themselves in difficult situations.
“[Providing] grocery assistance [and] ride vouchers was something GPSA was able to do to ease the effects of that change, until more long-term assistance became available via the Student Emergency Fund,” Warczak said.
GPSA President Alex Zhao said he makes sure GSPA is transparent and communicates effectively. He said one way the organization is able to do this now is by having virtual GPSA-focused town hall meetings.
Zhao (graduate-statistics) said the town hall meetings generally address common concerns, and in recent weeks, have addressed specific concerns about Penn State’s decisions regarding the coronavirus.
Zhao said discussion has included Penn State’s choice to not notify people who test negative for the coronavirus. He said recent town halls have also addressed the university’s “delays in contact tracing.”
He added that questions addressed at the town hall meetings are put together in a document, which is then shared with all graduate and professional students.
Chair of the Graduate Council Student Caucus Claire Kelling said she appreciates how GPSA has given her purpose and satisfaction outside of her research.
Kelling (graduate-statistics and social data analytics) said her first year as a graduate student was not easy, and she noticed other students were having similar experiences.
“When we think about graduate school, I think we expect the most difficult part to be working at the cutting edge of science and research,” Kelling said. “However, I often find that the most difficult parts manifest in policies and practices, outside of research and classes, that represent severe barriers to students.”
Being able to create a community and meet new people has been one of Kelling’s favorite parts of GPSA, she said.
“I enjoy bringing together students that might not meet under other circumstances, and end up becoming close friends,” Kelling said. “I have met some of the most amazing, inspirational and determined changemakers in my life through GPSA, and I am grateful to have them as colleagues and friends.”