Like last year, several of the Post-Graduate Students‘ Society (PGSS) executive candidates are running as a slate, namely Danielle Toccalino, Sahil Kumar, Bradley Por, Brighita Lungu, and Behrang Sharif. The slate‘s common platform elements mainly consist of increasing the availability of the executive to constituents — in particular by holding consistent, visible office hours — and maintaining a regular presence at Thomson House, Mac Campus, McGill-affiliated hospitals, and PGSS events.
Click on a position to see the candidates’ overviews.
As former Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) President, current SUS Chief Returning Officer, and current representative to PGSS for the Graduate Student Association of Neuroscience, Danielle Toccalino has a wealth of experience with McGill student politics. In addition to sitting on the SUS Constitutional Affairs Committee — where she helped update the Society‘s governing documents and reform electoral bylaws — Toccalino has participated in a number of working groups with both McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens. She noted that her terms in office demonstrate the organizational skills needed for the role of PGSS Secretary-General, which involves sitting on all of the associationís committees and acting as a bridge between graduate students and the University.
The PGSS executive committee suffered from strong internal divisions this year, with former Secretary-General Juan Camilo Pinto eventually resigning in January, citing personal reasons. Toccalino aims to promotes unity within the executive officers by making sure every executive officer has an equal voice. She also indicated that she would prioritize consensus-building on issues that polarize executive officers, aiming to work through proposals as a unit instead of relying on majority voting to make decisions. Divisions are not unique to just the executive, however, and Toccalino stated that she intends to shorten the gap between heavily committed PGSS members and apathetic ones.
As Secretary-General, Toccalino said that she would visit each of the 57 departmental associations meetings at least once a semester in order to solicit broad opinion. She is also advocating improved communication with graduate students by conducting more surveys and organizing more face-to-face events. Mental health and equity are also prominent parts of Toccalino‘s platform, and she would mandate each executive officer and commissioner to undergo equity and mental health first aid training.
Saturnin Espoir Ntamba Ndandala completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town, where he was president of the undergraduate student society. He has also occupied leadership positions while studying at the University of Sorbonne and the University of Toronto, and has helped in the development of a smartphone application that aims to promote electoral knowledge among minorities. At McGill, Ndandala currently serves as a member of the Policy and Structural Advisory Committee of PGSS and ran for interim Secretary-General following the resignation of Juan Camilo Pinto in February. He lost to Yony Bresler, winning only 29 per cent of the votes. Ndandala argues that his exposure to different cultural values will give him a good standing if elected. Furthermore, he describes himself as a fighter, citing his cancer survival as evidence of his tenacity and strength.
Of the two electoral platforms in the PGSS Secretary-General campaign, Ndandala‘s is the more radical. He is proposing to reduce the fees that graduate students pay to their association by eliminating PGSS executive salaries. In support of this, he argued that executive officers are only required to work for 15 hours per week, and that the heads of graduate departmental associations are also unpaid.
Raising awareness of sexual assault is also a key part of Ndandala‘s platform. He hopes to make it mandatory for all graduate students to take a course on sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender equality as part of their degree. True to his international academic experience, Ndandala also wants to ensure that international students have an easier transition into McGill by starting a program that would pair Canadian and foreign students. He envisions the program as a cultural exchange that would promote diversity among the student body.
Jenny Ann Pura is currently an Experimental Surgery Graduate Student Society (ESGSS) representative on PGSS Council. She told The Daily that her experience there sparked an interest in joining the executive committee. She also participated in initiatives to train student volunteers in active listening while an undergraduate at the University of Victoria. Aside from her work for ESGSS — of which she is co-president — Pura indicated her having attended Council meetings as experience that would count in her favour as Member Services Officer. The office is designed to offer guidance to graduate students on accessing McGill services — such as career planning, health services, and mental health services — as well as managing the various services run by PGSS.
Pura said that it is difficult to pinpoint what is most crucial to the role, stating that all aspects of the portfolio are equally important. She also had difficulty expressing a clear platform, but emphasized that team building exercises, transparency, and dealing with conflicts in a timely manner were all crucial. Additionally, she suggested that services for post-grads should be centralized in a single online platform, similar to Minerva. Pura stressed that every person‘s voice should be heard. However, she cautioned that she could not guarantee the feasibility of every electoral promise, expressing reluctance to declare what she hoped to achieve if elected.
Brighita Lungu, having completed her first term, is running for re-election to the position of PGSS Member Services Officer (MSO).
Given the year she has spent as MSO and as a member of the Graduate Architecture Students‘ Association (GASA), Lungu has built up extensive experience catered to the position. Although she characterized the learning curve of being a PGSS MSO as steep, Lungu said that given her increased familiarity with the terrain, she will be able to accomplish more in the next year if re-elected.
Lungu said that she thought that one of the biggest issues facing student leadership is the turnover that the positions often see. Therefore, highlighting institutional memory as a crucial factor for success, Lungu asserted that being consistent and running for the same position will give her an edge over her opponent.
With the brunt of the MSO‘s responsibility surrounding the proper representation of her constituents, Lungu cited a good working relationship with existing administrative organizations as a significant advantage. She also addressed the importance of teamwork, and said that she intends to require all PGSS executives to go through equity training and active bystander training.
Lungu was also very vocal about providing support mechanisms for graduate students, particularly with regard to mental health and counselling. She also noted potential future collaboration with the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (MORSL) as a way to ensure that graduate students who might not be seeking these services because of perceived stigma are able to access them safely.
Lungu said she believed that one of the challenges facing MSO is that the departmental associations are not centralized in one place, like at the downtown campus — instead, they take the form of eighty small groups around Montreal. She expressed her hope to work on improving the disjointed relationship between these associations if re-elected.
Sahil Kumar gained a sense for the position‘s portfolio through his involvement with the Internal Affairs Committee this year as a PGSS representative for the Experimental Medicine Graduate Student Society (EMGSS). He sat on the PGSS Equity Committee this year, and has past experience in student government; he was the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) VP Internal in 2013-14, a position in which he coordinated orientation week and introduced changes to make Frosh more accessible. He was also the SUS executive administrator in 2012-13, and worked for Campus Life & Engagement.
Kumar highlighted the importance of activities, communications, and committee recruitment to the Internal Affairs portfolio. He noted that there was room for improvement with orientation options — as a first-year graduate student, Kumar found orientation activities insufficient, even though a services fair was available. He hopes to create more welcoming orientation activities such as an activities night for committee positions, and to get students involved in committees, clubs, and departmental associations early in the year. Kumar also noted that he wants to provide more family-friendly events for PGSS members with children, and to take proactive action toward a sexual assault and harassment policy for PGSS.
Kumar considers mediating internal struggles to be an aspect of the Internal Affairs portfolio, noting that issues this year had detrimental effects on PGSS‘s public image, as well as on the atmosphere at Council meetings and Annual General Meetings.
Bradley Por decided to run for External Affairs Officer during the extended nomination period. Por is currently in his third year at McGill, as he has completed a Masters in Law and is just starting his PhD; he was previously the Academic Affairs Officer at the Graduate Law Students‘ Association (GLSA).
Por made it clear that he is not afraid to take strong stances, and indicated that resistance to austerity was a priority for him at a time when budget cuts are resulting in reduced funds for education services. In the wake of the possible collapse of the Fédération Étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), Por indicated that it was essential to rebuild a new organization based on open collaboration and communication in order to resist austerity.
Another key element of Por‘s platform is increasing communication between the External Affairs Officer and PGSS constituents. An Annual General Meeting twice a year, he noted, is not enough of a conversation with students. Por emphasized the importance for students to see their students‘ society as a tool for advocating for their interests, with regard to both the administration and the government.
Devin Mills served on the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee at Edgewood College in Wisconsin for three years, was an assessment graduate research assistant, and is currently the Education Graduate Students‘ Society (EGSS) VP Finance. If elected, communication and transparency will be at the forefront of Mills‘ priorities, as he has said that communicating with constituents is something that he would like to see PGSS do more of in the future. He hopes to make the policies that impact student life more clear to students, and thinks that, overall, PGSS could benefit from more transparency in its initiatives. He cites the Society‘s recent disaffiliation from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) as an example — PGSS members were unaware of the disaffiliation vote‘s potential effects on their fees.
Mills indicated that he was highly concerned about budget cuts at McGill, and also named increased research funding as an issue that he would prioritize in his advocacy. He said that filling all the Senate committee seats allocated to PGSS was a priority for him, and that he would seek to improve communication with PGSS members to that end.
After the controversies of this past year that resulted in the removal of Secretary-General Juan Camilo Pinto from his position on the PGSS executive, Mills said he would like to help PGSS regain respect from its constituents and re-establish its credibility. Overall, he says he would like to eliminate doubts that people might have regarding the organization in order to promote engagement.
Behrang Sharif has been involved in various PGSS committees since he began his graduate studies at McGill around three years ago, and was previously treasurer and president at a national association for pharmaceutical students in Iran. He has also worked in a financial capacity at a startup, has taken part in local, national, and international student organizations and federations, and has spent two years as a PGSS representative for the Physiology Graduate Student Association (PGSA).
Transparency and accessibility of the PGSS budget and its overall finances is of great importance for Sharif, especially given that PGSS is struggling financially following its legal dispute with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). He suggested seeking increased revenue to avoid hiking fees by encouraging people to hold meetings at Thomson House throughout the day in order to increase sales, for example.
Sharif‘s other portfolio-related goals include improving the partnership between PGSS and other campus organizations, and continuing the Thomson House lease negotiations with the University in case they are not completed by the current executive. He noted that there is currently a lack of clarity about the negotiation process on the part of PGSS executives. He also aims to to promote PGSS involvement among constituents.