A quick show of hands. How many of you know someone who’s a graduate student in school? How many of you know what they do on a day to day basis?

Let us guess. Not many. Neither did we, and that’s the reason why we caught up with four of the association’s executive committee (exco) members – Katherine Fennedy (President), Alok Patra (Vice President), Lau Jun Liang (General Secretary) and Kranthi Bannuru (Events Director) – to learn more about their vibrant community.

Taking charge: pioneering leaders of their generation

Katherine Fennedy, President of the GSA

Martin Luther King once said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” That’s pretty much the case with these passionate young leaders. As the minority cohort in a larger community, the GSA exco often find themselves being vocal about improving the welfare of the graduate student population.

It is no small task. Unlike the undergrads, the graduate population tends to be more fragmented, with varying sets of needs. “For us, our concerns are very different. It is usually specific to our labs or clusters (graduate offices). That is why we need an association to be aware of what these various concerns are and surface them to management.” Kranthi explains.

In 2017, the Graduate Students Association, led by President Katherine Fennedy and Vice President Alok Patra, was born. “We are the student body representing students by students for students, specifically graduate students,” Katherine defines with a smile. “We want to be the official representation of graduate students in SUTD.”

Paving the way for better graduate programs in future

When the GSA was first officially founded, one of the most pressing issues facing the then newly minted association was to bridge the communication gap between the management and students. Dialogues between the parties used to be cumbersome. Students were approaching the management individually with issues that were largely similar. The university on the other hand, had no single point of contact to reach out to for accurate feedback from the community.

“With the GSA coming into the picture, we put concerns raised to us to the management, and so far they’ve gotten addressed most of the time,” Katherine explains. “As the official representation, we try to have a dialogue on behalf of the students. They know there are representatives who can help them talk to the management. When they have problems, concerns about their research or when they simply need a friend to talk to – they will talk to us.”

Today, the student group functions as a partner to the university. Some budget has been allocated for the association to run activities they deem beneficial to their community. A new role – the Director of the Office of Graduate Studies – has been set in place to provide direct access to decision makers. Committee members are also given opportunities to elevate their leadership capabilities. Just last year, some of them were sent to a UN Summit in Bangkok.

Alok Patra, Vice President of the GSA

“It was a one-week conference and we got to meet people from 70 countries” Alok recalls,
“it was a good opportunity which I’m thankful for. We didn’t join the GSA expecting something in return, we just want to focus on benefiting our community.”
Kranthi laughs.

Energising the graduate community

Another important aspect – also the favourite part of their work – is to bring their community closer together. And nothing does it better than good ol’ events. “We want to make the students’ lives livelier. It’s not all just research and lab you know,” Alok remarks.

While SUTD’s graduate facilities are already designed to foster interdisciplinary interaction, the team know they can do more, especially on the social front. “It is very easy for students to be confined to their own clusters and labs. So, we try to provide opportunities for them to meet each other,” Kranthi illustrates.

Kranthi Bennuru, Events Director of the GSA

Allowing fellow students to experience first-hand, the vibrancy and diversity of their very own community is also why they are keen on getting everyone out of their comfort clusters. “It’s a very good opportunity to learn from other people. Thanks to Jun Liang, I now know what stinky tofu is, and all I can say is, it’s worth a try!” Alok describes as the team breaks into a bout of laughter.

Events from the GSA fall under two broad categories: Social and academic. Activities range from sports events to crowd favourite BBQ sessions to inter-university competitions – of which the team leverages on to increase the visibility of SUTD’s graduate programs. “Many people don’t know that SUTD has a PhD program. That’s why we make it a point to interact with student bodies from other universities.” Kranthi highlights.

“Being a graduate student, you need to find a lot of balance in your research and personal life. And that will carry you along in your life wherever you go,” Jun Liang describes. “Not everyone will get a Nobel prize from doing a PhD, but what everyone can surely achieve is to interact with each other, learn lots of good things and maybe find their life partner!” Kranthi adds with a laugh.

Forging on

All four agree that one of the best things about being on the exco is how they get to work together and yet at the same time, complement the team with their strengths and talents.

Lau Jun Liang, General Secretary of the GSA

“I like to document things, so I usually take the photos and videos for our events,” Jun Liang describes. Katherine, on the other hand, was attracted to the leadership potential of her role. “We share a lot of common responsibilities as president and vice president (gestures to Alok). Behind the scene, a lot of us work outside our job scopes, especially when we organise events. There are a lot of collaborations within the group.” Jun Liang concurs: “We may have individual designations, but we like working together.”

With a solid foundation in place, the group is now setting their sights on expanding the core exco team. And as with most jobs in the world, recruitment isn’t always easy. “People are scared to commit. But we are saying get over that fear, use the opportunity to experience something new,” Katherine exerts. “Because this is a privilege and not a lot of people have the opportunity to represent something bigger than yourself. There’s more to life than research.”

The Graduate Student Association Executive Committee (L-R): Sophia Chan, Lau Jun Liang, Katherine Fennedy, Alok Patra, Thilini Cooray, Verina Cristie, Kranthi Bannuru (front)
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