Getting involved in student associations for professional and personal development: Reflections from a year-long mandate as the Computer Science (CS) Graduate Student Association (GSA) President

As a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, there are many opportunities to develop personal and professional skills by joining a student association. These individual benefits, as usually advertised by the associations, include: making a positive impact in students’ social lives, influencing community life on campus, networking, and transferring the skills we learn as students into a more professional dynamic. From my experience, all these benefits were indeed true - being part of a graduate student association absolutely enables you to contribute to the graduate community, not only continuing with work and agenda from previous administrations but by bringing your own set of experiences, points of view and students’ communicated intentions. However, in my experience, I was also able to learn and develop countless skills beyond those advertised. To me, it is hard to quickly spot these more subtle benefits without careful consideration when I am asked about my own participation. Thus, this post is an opportunity to carefully reflect upon my experience and share it, aiming at guiding or sparking interest in other students to join student associations. 

For some context, I worked in industry for around 15 years before deciding to be a full-time PhD student. When I decided to nominate myself for president of the CS GSA, I had in mind that if elected, I would put into practice the skill set I had gained from industry, on behalf of the association and the university. Those skills indeed came into play, however, I ended up learning much more. Here are some practical examples of what I experienced:

Improved student life and student experience

To start, I can never say “I” did things. First, I could count on the CS GSA volunteers and school administration for their collaboration. Second, I strengthened friendship ties with previous CS GSA administration peers, other departmental GSAs, and also my friends from UWaterloo who were not part of the association but have always shown me support. I want to take this chance here and say that I’m grateful for the support and the outcomes of it. Moreover, I highlight that as a result of these connections, I was able to undergo an improved life as a student in a new city, country, and school. 

Increased motivation for research

Organizing and putting forward not only your ideas and goals but the team’s goals and, more importantly, student’s ideas and wishes was more challenging than I had thought at first. How to prioritize? How to come up with strategies to discuss the matters with whoever had to be involved in the plans? How to weigh the overall impact of our decisions and actions? All these questions sound a bit like project management and a bit like politics. Adopting both of these perspectives at the same time was already an interesting experience, which I hadn’t gained in industry, as we are limited to the company’s and client’s goals, and a defined agenda.

In the end, I felt like we were thinking up small research projects and were somehow able to execute them successfully and quickly. The nature of these projects could be quite different from my research projects, such as upgrading the CS GSA website, thinking of effective ways of communicating with students, creating new ways students could develop skills with seminars and organizing events, all that while co-operating with the administration. Yet the sense of accomplishment kept on growing into motivation for my research as well.

Networking beyond the university

Speaking of events, not only did we organize a wide range of social events for students but also partnered up with companies, such as Google and Ralph. The events with Google were an opportunity that emerged after Google’s previous experiences with other departmental GSAs, and we were able to customize it according to both Computer Science and Engineering students’ interests. By the way, it may seem pretty basic and intuitive, but I learned a lot from talking to other GSAs and knowing about their experiences and weighing their advice into the scenario we had with CS students. Using this network from previous events, Google’s university relations specialist reached out to us and we were able to orchestrate two events specifically for graduate students, funded by Google and on our campus. We tailored the content of the presentations with Google. For the first event, we thought about what content would be interesting for STEM graduate students that were not offered by any other sector in the university. Then, after we got feedback from students from the first event, we learned students wanted to attend more research talks. So, we again suggested new topics, such as AI and research. Googlers that are research specialists came to our campus again, to talk about their life in Google, explain how they got there, what skill set they had to have, and how they were able to put the knowledge and academic expertise from their PhD into use in their job at Google. For the event with Ralph, we had feedback from a PhD student who told us that they were able to negotiate for a better salary in their job offer.

As a student, I was already thrilled to have the opportunity to see these talks. And as a facilitator, although I was told of the many benefits of networking, I never anticipated that I'd be networking with companies of this calibre, so directly, and actually being able to negotiate the content of the presentations on behalf of our students. And at times, there is the added thrill of hearing heartwarming feedback, like one attendee who shared they were able to negotiate for a salary increase after a seminar we had promoted. All I can say is, “WOW”.

Graduate students at a CS GSA Google event in 2019Graduate students at a CS GSA Google event in 2020

Graduate students participate in CS GSA Google events in both 2019 (left) and 2020 (right).

A truly rewarding experience

I also had the chance to be part of the organization of two field trips, to Niagara Falls and Chicopee Tubing Park. It was the first time the CS GSA had the chance to promote field trips. Learning the process to organize the trip with the university, interacting with the school's financial department, creating this collaboration and pulling this off for the first time while being supported by the school was very rewarding. And again, the feedback - positive and negative - from students that joined the trips and the lessons learned are all now added to my skill set. 

CS GSA members pose during a trip to Chicopee Tubing Park

The CS GSA members pose during a trip to Chicopee Tubing Park.

Personal improvement

Last, but not least, all the mentioned (and unmentioned) accomplishments would not be possible without the CS GSA board of volunteers. Their teamwork is vital to keep the association going, putting ideas forward, debating, discussing, contributing. My own experience as head of the CS GSA was greatly impacted by working with a team of volunteers for the first time. It required an administration style I had never before experienced.  I learned a lot and can easily say there is still a lot of room for personal improvement!

I truly believe this experience added an unimaginable value to what will eventually be the result of my PhD: not only my thesis, but an improved self, with a much more diverse overall experience in my relationships, knowledge, ability to listen, negotiate and of course, everything that is advertised as the benefits of joining student associations. I am enormously thankful to the CS GSA board of volunteers I worked with, for being part of a period of extreme personal and professional development for myself.

This experience leads me to wish every grad student had similar opportunities during their journey here at UWaterloo. Joining a student association can depend on an opportunity such as a call for a nomination, but be sure to seek opportunities if you wish to get involved. On the whole, a tip for the future: the possibilities and calls to get involved in student associations should be advertised differently. Students have the right to know that what is coming their way can be much more valuable than what is traditionally advertised!

Glaucia Melo is a PhD. candidate in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo and her research focuses on software development context-aware tools. Learn more about Glaucia’s research on her web page.

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