Two campaigns run in first Graduate Student Assembly elections with executive alliances

Nicole Cobler

When graduate students vote in Graduate Student Assembly elections Wednesday and Thursday, they will choose between executive alliances running for the presidential and vice-presidential positions for the first time in the organization’s history. 

In the past, students ran independently, and those elected president and vice president had no say in their partnership.

Presidential candidate Frank Male and running mate Virginia Luehrsen will run in alliance against presidential candidate David Villarreal and running mate Brian Wilkey. Both pairs focus on issues including graduate student tuition policies and the need for increased community involvement. 

Last year, roughly 1,000 of the 11,000 graduate students at UT voted in the elections. 

Villarreal, a history graduate student, said that he and Wilkey would focus on promoting graduate health and self-care, affordable housing, expanding the graduate-student voice, and maximizing graduate student resources.

Villarreal said he chose Wilkey as his running mate because of Wilkey’s desire for efficiency in GSA. Although both candidates each have one year of experience in GSA, Villarreal said his close relationship with Columbia Mishra, the current GSA president, makes him qualified for the position.

“In some ways we’re running as outsiders, which I think is actually a strength of ours,” Villarreal said. “The job of the vice president is to manage and run the assembly meetings, and I thought, in many ways, [Wilkey] is already doing this job, so he would be an ideal candidate to carry over.”

One of the pair’s biggest goals, Villarreal said, is to institute a campaign to promote mental-health awareness. Villarreal, who suffers from narcolepsy, said he understands the challenges of finding resources on-campus for health issues.

“One of the only reasons I learned about disability services was from a friend,” Villarreal said. “People shouldn’t learn about their fundamental rights by word of mouth.”

If elected vice president, Wilkey said he hopes to create a central database for all the resources available to graduate students. Wilkey, a human development and family sciences graduate student, said students approaching him with questions made him realize University services are not well-advertised. 

“Very often those resources are available for graduate students, but they are not promoted and often under-utilized,” Wilkey said.

Villarreal has also been working closely with GSA student affairs director Jaime Puente to write a graduate student bill of rights aimed at creating a baseline minimum stipend to help graduate students cope with the cost of living.

Wilkey said although he has not worked directly on the bill of rights, it is one of the most important things he and Villarreal hope to continue pushing if elected.

“It kind of goes unmentioned because it is priority number one for us,” Wilkey said. “That’s something that affects change at a campus-wide level.”

Wilkey and Villarreal both said their four platform points contribute to their overall goal of increasing representation for graduate students.

According to Wilkey, only about 60 percent of GSA members show up to the assembly’s meetings. 

“We claim to speak as a representative body for all graduate students,” Wilkey said. 

Physics graduate student Frank Male and information studies graduate student Virginia Luehrsen will run on a platform centered on graduate student housing, community, time-to-degree and dismissal procedures. Male and Luehrsen are currently in their third and fourth year as GSA members, respectively. 

Luehrsen said the positive feedback she’s received from her department prompted her to run for the vice-presidential seat, and she asked Male to join her at the top of the ticket.

“I’ve been in [GSA] for so long, and it’s important to me that it stays strong,” Luehrsen said.

The 99-hour rule is one of Male’s main concerns. Currently, if graduate students exceed 99 hours in pursuit of their degrees, they may be subject to out-of-state tuition. 

“Graduate students tend to already live on a shoestring budget so having that happen would just be devastating,” Male said.

Male said he also hopes to expand the current Milestones Agreement Program, which was created to help individual graduate students stay on track for finishing their degree. Male said the current system often notifies students they are being dismissed only several weeks before the end of a semester.

“Because it’s so nebulous, it’s difficult to know how well you’re achieving your goals and working towards graduation,” Male said.

Luehrsen said the duo’s experiences in GSA make them a good combination to help broaden the scope of what the organization can do.

“Between my skill set of navigating with the other legislative student organizations and my ability to network with representatives in other departments, and [Male’s] working with administration, makes a really good combination,” Luehrsen said.

Clarification: Due to an editing error, this story has been updated from its original version. GSA candidate Virginia Luehrsen is in her fourth year as a GSA member.