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What it is like to be part of the GISA Board – Part 2 – Lorena Villavicencio, VP for Masters Programmes

This is the second in a series of four interviews with the outgoing members of GISA Board.

By Anna Liz Thomas

Can you describe your role in your own words within the GISA board?

Yes. I am the VP for Masters’ students. When I first started, this also included the COVID extension students, even though we didn’t get funding for them. Right now, I represent about 800 students. I work with 14 class representatives (who are the first point of contact for students). We have bi-weekly meetings, and they have the opportunity to bring up any issues with me. I mostly work with the administration directly. So that involves the direction of studies, student support and the Direction usually. We try to solve academic issues, and any issues that pertain to master students. Some class representatives specifically, MINT class representatives, have monthly meetings with the head of department and Silke. Rodogno (head of MINT) does not go to each of these meetings. I think he goes once a semester, but there’s always one meeting with Rodogno, and I go to these meetings when invited. I also help students individually in the capacity of VP, but some students have very sensitive issues, like financial issues or issues on a more personal level. I try to help them without any external support, because it’s what helped them feel comfortable as well. I advocate on behalf of the students on different issues.  I conduct the Masters’ Thesis Share, and the Masters’ forum. Moving forward, we’re going to incorporate MADIship, which is the mentorship for the disciplinary students within the responsibility of the VP for Masters’ as well.

How has your experience been so far within the GISA board?

I started in May, and my term will end in a couple of weeks. Obviously, it’s been very stressful throughout this year. But it has been rewarding as well, to work with students and work with the administration as well and try to get different things to improve on, and I feel that I have at least done that. Several things like the MADIS internships were approved by the administration. The COVID extension students really wanted a graduation in March, and also for the graduation last September, they had wanted to open it up. So it has been stressful, but I do think that it has provided at least a pathway to continue GISA’s work and continue with advocacy with the  administration. And I think the new interim governance has at least opened that space for GISA. 

What parts of your tenure were stressful for you?

I think that mostly when I started there was a lot of chaos in regards to the  qualitative methods course. There was a group of students that were very unhappy with that. There had been other stressful moments in regards to the General Assembly. Also, when the sit-in happened, it caused much stress for the GISA board as well. And, you know, there was an article about GISA that was published on a news media outlet as well. So, it has just been very stressful because we have been trying to work with the administration to make changes as well. But then sometimes this pushes us a couple steps back.

Are there cases where you’ve struggled, and not been able to succeed as much, or make progress in terms of advocacy?

Anything that I have advocated with the administration has always gone very smoothly, at least for me, because I have a very good and positive relationship with the administration. I don’t think others might, at least on the board, do depending on their own views of how the administration is. But I have always tried to keep a neutral stance because I don’t have my own agenda. Whatever the students want me to advocate for is what I advocate for. And everything that I have advocated for has passed, or there has been some middle ground that has been reached where the administration is happy, and students are happy as well. Obviously, with extensions, we’re still working on it, they extended it two weeks, and the way I perceived it is that they still are willing to do two more, or at least are open to extend the possibilities.

So you’re responsible for over 800 students, and this includes both the disciplinary and the interdisciplinary tracks, which are very different from each other. How has it been for you to juggle these two different programmes at the Institute?

And I think this hasn’t come from my own mandate, but from my understanding of previous VPs and their work as well, I get the sense that there has always been this battle between MINT and MADIS. Both have their pros. For example, MADIS students want to do the workshops for MINT, because they’re specific skills that they would like, but then also MINT students want to have more of the academic rigour that the MADIS students get. MINT has always been considered more solution-oriented, and practical, while MADIS is considered to be the more academic track.

What I have found, at least because I did participate in the MINT reform last year, was that the population of students that are entering these programmes are no longer uniform, they’re very multi-dimensional students. They’re not fitting into boxes anymore like they used to be.

But even within the MADIS internship credits, for example, I advocated in January, because a couple of MADIS students came up to me saying that it was unfair that MINT get to have an internship credit, which creates a loophole with OCPM allowing them to work full time and within the six months of their first day here, but MADIS students was not able to have it. With that proposal, you saw that students are no longer just fitting this box of practitioner and academia, neither for MINT or MADIS. So it has been my hope to at least bridge this gap between MINT and MADIS students. I’m not saying that I have bridged the gap. But there needs to be more of an understanding that yes, they are different programs, but students are not.

Since I am a MADIS student, I have tried to really talk to MINT class representatives to understand where MINT is struggling, I attend their monthly meetings as well to ensure what are the sort of the topics that they are, what type of questions they bring up to Silke. And I think James and Marielle, also attend those. Since I am part of the MADIS programme, I can understand some of the MADIS concerns. So this is the way I sort of tried to deal with the academic related issues between the two. I found that at least working with the all the heads of departments, you get to advocate better on what students need about from their studies at the institute more, and I don’t think in the past, the VP, or GISA has been very present in academic committee meetings.

What are some of the things that you think the incoming VP for Masters should be aware of when it comes to the work that you do? Perhaps something you were not aware of when you stepped into the position?

For me, my transition was very extensive. If there was something new I encountered during my mandate, I could just refer to the 20 page transition document I had. My predecessor Massimiliano, is also now in the PhD programme, so I could always just text and ask him for input and feedback. So I also intend to be that type of mentor or predecessor for the next VP as well.

Obviously, the way he did his mandate is not the same way I approach things. So I think the only thing that my advice would be for the next VP is that their leadership style should not be based on their predecessor. Everyone has their own way of dealing with issues or concerns or advocacy.

The only thing I think that I would have liked to have known is, I guess, the need to maintain neutrality on what was going on. When I entered my mandate, there was already some tension between GISA and administration, from the previous board, which I would say impacted our work. I tried really hard to neutralise the tensions as much as I could by proving myself to the administration that I was a new VP, I had my own ideas, I have my own approaches. And I think after a time, the administration saw that. So I would just tell  the new VP that they must adopt their own respectable, neutral or collaborative way of working with the administration.

If there’s one thing that you would like to change about a) the GISA board and b) about the Institute, what would it be?

For the Institute, because I come from the US and the US has a very different approach in the way they manage universities, it’s more student-oriented than the Institute.  I would say, there’s a need to create more student space at the institute. And you can sort of see from the exterior and interior is very corporate. I know they are working on the new student lounge. And there were issues with ordering furniture, but I suggested to them that, maybe you could check second-hand shops. We don’t need corporate looking furniture. So they are going to collaborate with the environmental committee to find second-hand furniture to create more of a student friendly space. But obviously, that’s going to take time. So that’s my only thing with the Institute, to create more of a student friendly atmosphere.

For the GISA board, I think that we need to have more connection among ourselves. I think that at some point, there were a lot of issues among internal members that created a rift. In my opinion, it sort of made people hopeless that we would change things at the Institute. And I think that, yes, we are students, and our batch at least, had a very rough time in general. But I think that the GISA board, despite the internal issues that we may have had, should always uphold professionalism all the time. Because, at least in my view, in the real world, you will not agree with everybody. But you still need to be professional and respectable to everyone. And I think this is what I would have wished would change.

Image credit: Joshua Hoehne at unsplash.com 

2 comments on “What it is like to be part of the GISA Board – Part 2 – Lorena Villavicencio, VP for Masters Programmes

  1. Pingback: What it is like to be part of the GISA Board – Part 3 – Bushra Asghar, Events Coordinator – The Graduate Press

  2. Pingback: What it is like to be part of the GISA Board – Part 4 – Aishwarya Abhay Tendolkar, President – The Graduate Press

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