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A Voice for Grad Students
How the Graduate Student Association empowers Ph.D.’s-to-be

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Peter Maloney with GSA officers K.C. Kent and Rebecca Deering-Brose at a poster session in Turner Concourse.

Like planets spinning through space, some 850 School of Medicine grad students, enrolled in 13 science programs, are rotating through 400 labs in Baltimore’s Hopkins universe. What keeps them from flying off in all directions? The Graduate Student Association.

“The GSA is the only peer-integrating force on campus. It’s crucial,” says Peter Maloney, professor of physiology and associate dean for graduate student affairs. The GSA, he says, is the voice of the graduate students. It conveys students’ concerns to the administration and faculty and transmits back the institution’s views and standards.

Besides seeing to day-to-day student affairs like parking and social and career-oriented activities, this volunteer group has lately been involved in far stickier and contentious issues like stipends and housing. The struggle’s just begun.

In September 2006, the GSA requested that the annual graduate student stipend of $25,200 be raised to $27,000 for the coming academic year. According to a GSA survey conducted in the previous academic year, when the stipend was just $24,600, students were shelling out an average of $773 a month in rent plus gas and electric fees. Bottom line? After taxes, 46 percent of their monthly stipend went to paying rent, and in Baltimore’s red-hot real estate market, rents were shooting up.

“The survey also found that as many as 48 percent of the students relied on an outside source for income, and 24 percent have taken out student loans,” says Nicole Rapacovali, a fourth-year neuroscience student and the GSA co-vice president.

surgeonsGrad students at happy hour in the PCTB courtyard.

Maloney, meanwhile, discovered that stipends at 25 urban peer institutions for the current academic year were $26,200. He estimated that these same peer institutions would hike their stipends up to $27,000 for 2007–2008.

The GSA took their cause to the M.D./Ph.D. committee, chairmen of the basic science departments and the School’s financial office, which recommended $26,200—not $27,000—for  the coming year. Negotiations continued up the administrative ladder, but to no avail.

“We didn’t get everything we asked for, but things are on the right track,” says GSA President Kristina Krasnov, a fifth-year student in cellular and molecular medicine. “While we get compensated pretty well, keeping up with inflation is important to us.”

Why stop at $26,200? Blame it on the National Institutes of Health, says Maloney. NIH funding for basic science research has been shrinking, and researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere are not getting the dollars they requested. Some have had their grants turned down. This directly affects stipend issues because much of Hopkins research is funded by NIH grants, and research grants fund about 60 percent of student support.

Of course, grad students have an inexpensive housing alternative: Reed Hall. The outdated dorm on the East Baltimore campus has 300 rooms. Monthly rents for next year are $400 for a single and $450 for a suite. “But very few of our grad students want to be in Reed Hall,” says Ann Snead, housing director. In fact, only 47—the vast majority of them international students—are  living there now.       

Plans are afoot to provide housing for medical students and grad students in the future Science and Technology Park. So far though, developers have not been identified, and the building is not due to open until at least the 2009 academic year.

In the interim, depending on the results of this year’s housing and stipend survey, the GSA plans to continue lobbying for a stipend increase.

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Grad students on ice.

Important as the stipend issue is, the GSA isn’t only about lobbying. The organization funds student groups such as the Leadership Initiative for the Environment, treats students to outside lecturers and supports travel to scientific meetings. In collaboration with Hopkins organizations like the Professional Development Office and Student Assistance Program, the GSA offers workshops that hone skills in grant writing and interviewing.

What about fun? Students decompress during GSA bowling marathons, wine-tasting parties and ski trips. This year, in cooperation with the Peabody Institute and the Graduate Representative Organization at Homewood, the GSA held a “beer and jazz benefit” at a Canton pub and raised $2,400 for the Maryland Food Bank. “It was a great success and another way for grad students to meet,” says K.C. Kent, a fourth-year grad student in human genetics and the GSA co-vice president.

The next hot issue—dear to the souls of grad students, faculty and administrators—is  education. Already there have been rumblings about the number of students, as many as 110, stuffed into first-year lectures. The discussion should be especially interesting, says Maloney, because everybody will have an opinion—not least the GSA.

—Lydia Levis Bloch

School of Medicine Students at a Glance

U.S. CITIZENS: 537 (63.2 percent)
UNDERREPRESENTED MINORITIES: 81 (15 percent of U.S. grad students, 9.5 percent of all grad students)
TUITION AND FEES FOR 2007–08: $34,100 and $720, respectively*



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