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Postgrads shouldn't be lonely

The GSA plays a crucial role in representing postgraduate students

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Image Credit: Phillip Pankhurst

2164Image Credits: Arian Kriesch

Those of you who were here in May 2019 might remember seeing some big orange posters made with my awfully poor design skills along with a big picture of my face, all around the campus.It was often accompanied with my campaign slogan “together, we are not alone” in big bold writing. When I look back and think about the reasons why I chose this slogan,it struck me that during my PhD journey that that was how I felt:alone.

I am not trying to be melodramatic or unfair to my family and friends but my working life back then could be summarised as: glued to my desk in an open office at the Berrick Saul, drowning in caffeine stimulants but lacking any social interaction.

I commuted from Leeds in my first year at the University and sometimes ended up either in Thirsk or on my way to Manchester Airport (kudos and thanks to my lovely partner who came to my rescue every single time.) Research at university is not easy; it is really tough.I often found myself at dead ends, frequently trying countless different approaches, theories and perspectives to try and get it all to make sense.

When I went through difficult phases, I had no idea that fellow students might be going through the same. Would you believe that that loneliness was self-inflicted? It took me a couple of years to figure it out that regardless of the differences we have individually or how opposite our research might be, our PG journeys are not dissimilar to nature.

Last March, Wonkhe produced a startling wellbeing report in which it was discovered that over 15 per cent of UK university students surveyed said they felt lonely on a daily basis, and another third said they felt the same weekly. The figures were even worse for disabled students, black and minority ethnic students and international students.

A postgraduate degree adds to the feeling of loneliness too, particularly for PhD students, who work long hours in isolation researching and may not speak to another student all day. 20 per cent of international students also said they had no true friends at university. Around 50 per cent of post-graduate students at the University of York are international. Many experience culture shock, and struggle with integrating with their peers in their course and/or college.

I mention all this as the ‘Graduate Students’ Association’ was setup exactly to deal with that horrible statistic and to help build our post-graduate community at York.

Since 1963, for over 50 years the GSA has been working to represent York’s postgrads and is now one of the leading postgraduate led organisations in the whole country, having recently hosted the first national postgraduate conference. Isolation, loneliness and post-grad wellbeing were chief among the key topics we spoke about to over 70 postgrad reps from other postgrad student unions and institutions from up and down the country. We strive to offer fantastic events and opportunities every single week of the year, with dedicated and diverse representation. From distance learning masters students to full-time PhDs, who can often be overlooked in other institutions and universities, we cater to everyone on the postgraduate spectrum.

Our Welcome Week event in particular is the largest of its kind in the UK (think less t-shirt bar crawls and more ceilidhs, after-noon teas and disco bingo!) with some record-breaking numbers of over 4500 postgraduate students coming together on campus this year and making new friends from across the world.

If you are feeling lonely, isolated or just feel like making friends, feel free to come along to some of our events, we have something happening every week!

From our weekly postgrad pub quiz to our language exchange lunch, there is something for everyone. We also have a dedicated and confidential advice service if you need additional support.

Some people may think that there is not much value in having a dedicated student union just for postgraduates. However, I would argue that now more than ever, strong, independent post graduate representation and support is needed across the UK university sector. Unfortunately, it seems that most student unions are dominated by undergraduate voices with no experience or knowledge of the hard-ships of doing a masters or PhD to accurately represent their postgraduate students.

More information about everything we do can be found at yorkgsa.org, or if you want to know anything specific or have any of your own specific ideas to help improve your postgraduate experience you can email me directly at president@yorkgsa.org

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