Tuesday, May 19, 2015

GEO (The Graduate Employee Organization) – Your Contract and Your Union

If you’re an incoming graduate student, accepting your department’s offer probably involved accepting a funding letter that told you where your money would come from for the next few years. If some of that funding will come from teaching, then there’s an even more important document that you might not yet know exists: the contract between the university and GEO (the graduate employee labour union) that guarantees the employment conditions of all graduate student instructors.
Before I say a bit about what GEO is and how it works, let’s have a look at the contract and in particular the parts of it that especially affect international students. It’s online here , and worth getting to know. It’s renegotiated every couple of years—most recently in 2010 and 2013—and issues that affect international students are always under discussion.
So what has GEO achieved for international students recently? A few examples below from the last two contract-revisions:
Did you know that once you start teaching at the university you’re automatically entitled to have your SEVIS fee reimbursed (remember, the $200 you had to pay for vague ‘homeland security reasons’ before you could even apply for a Visa)? The GEO contract guarantees that if you fill out the relevant paperwork within 4 semesters of starting to teach at U of M, then the university will give you that $200 back.
Meanwhile, if English isn’t your first language, you have to pass a test to show that you speak it well enough to teach. The GEO contract makes sure this process is standardized so that individual departments can’t hold different instructors to different standards. It also ensures that this test isn’t used as an excuse to avoid funding commitments, as if students don’t pass their departments still have to honour their financial offer. This ensures that it’s in everyone’s interests for students to reach the necessary level of proficiency.
If you have to take a short course at the English Language Institute to establish that your English is up to scratch, meanwhile, the most recent contract makes sure that you get paid for this training.  In the next contract, GEO hopes to get your healthcare insurance to apply during that training period too.
The contract also guarantees that you still get paid if you have to travel to deal with immigration procedures during term-time, or if you have to travel due to a death in the family. Among the things GEO hopes to achieve in the next contract is to get longer bereavement leave options: currently, instructors are entitled to 3 days off to return home when a family member dies.  If, like lots of international students here, you live a 12-hour plane-flight away, this doesn’t allow much time with family and friends...

So what exactly is GEO, how does it work, and what’s its relation to you? It stands for Graduate Employee Organization, and it’s a labour union composed of Michigan’s graduate instructors. GEO negotiates the contract with the university every couple of years, it represents its members to the university whenever someone breaches the contract, and it organizes social events and training. All instructors are part of the union, paying a small fee each semester to have it represent them. For an even tinier additional fee, most instructors choose to be full members of the union, which allows them to attend membership meetings and vote on actions and policies. As long as you teach at Michigan while you’re studying, GEO will represent you however little attention you pay to it. The entire institution runs on the effort of your peers (and a couple of professional staff), though, so it’s good to know how things work.
Each department should have at least one steward, who represents the department to the union at a weekly meeting. If you have questions or problems regarding your working conditions, your department steward should be the first point of contact. Stewards may organize small meetings in their departments from time to time; they have their weekly meeting of all stewards; and two or three times a semester there are open meetings for the whole membership (General Membership Meetings) to attend and take votes on policies and actions.  And alongside all this, there are distinct caucuses that deal with specific issues that affect particular populations, from parents, to LGTQ people, to those with disabilities, to, of course, international students. Keep an eye out for messages about the international student caucus…
This structure lets seemingly isolated grievances lead to new contract language: when I was a department steward in English, someone raised an issue in a department meeting that I brought up for discussion at a steward’s meeting; people told me to suggest a solution as a contract amendment at the next membership meeting, and when I did, it turned out that people in Chemistry had been having a related problem for years. They picked it up and wrote language for the contract, and this was the first amendment the university accepted in that round of contract revision. Getting actively involved in GEO is thus one way to really directly change your working conditions for the better.
Last but not least, there’s more to the union than the contract. One of my favourite things about my two years as a department steward was getting to meet people from so many other departments. PhD work can be quite isolating once coursework ends and the dissertation begins, and GEO was a great opportunity to meet and to work with people from across the university.
Working with GEO is also a very direct way to find out what’s going on in local and national politics.  US legal and political debates can seem alien and abstract when you come from a couple of oceans away, but GEO is constantly dealing with political events in Michigan and in the US more generally.  Given that PhD students might be in Michigan for upwards of 9 or 10, knowing what’s going on in the state outside the Ann Arbor bubble is never a bad thing.
Less politically, meanwhile, GEO is an excellent source of free drinks and clothes. Every year they seemingly print up more t-shirts than there are people in Ann Arbor, so if you go along to a couple of GEO events per year, you get enough good-quality t-shirts to make buying your own unnecessary. If only they made socks…
You don’t have to get actively involved with GEO for it to play an important part in your time at Michigan. The union’s negotiations with the university dictate the contract you work under whenever you teach, and it’s important to know your contract, your rights, and your obligations. Not only to know them, indeed, but to play a direct part in creating them. Next contract negotiations are in 2016: okay, so you only just got here, but why not start thinking about what you’d like to change…

Alistair (Ali) Chetwynd
Summer Orientation Peer Adviser
Ph.D.: English Language & Literature
Country of Origin: UK

Monday, March 9, 2015

My Journey at U-M

When I first arrived at the University of Michigan and set my foot on the Diag, I was scared but excited. What is college in America like? Am I going to make new friends? Am I going to find a major that I like? I didn’t know what my next four years would be like, except for the fact that I wanted to help people. Looking back, college is where I found my passion for social justice and my true self. After I obtain my bachelor’s degree, I will be enrolling in the School of Social Work to continue on my education and advocate for social changes in the US. I also hope to get a Master of Public Health degree so I can look at sexual assault through a public health lens and address the much needed societal responsibility when it comes to raising awareness and preventing sexual assault. In last three years at U of M, I learned that the integration of many different subjects and interests is not only possible, but also encouraged – cross-disciplinary learning promotes comprehensive and integrative thinking. I don’t have to limit myself to taking classes I don’t like just so I can have a “good job” – I could combine my interests and passions into my future plans. As you continue your individual journey at U of M, here are some tips for finding your niche and passion, as I have found mine:

1.     Challenge Yourself
Take courses that you know nothing about. How about a coding class? How about an acting class? Even if it doesn’t have anything to do with your major, take a chance. You may end up liking it and finding your new passion.

2.     Re-define Your Idea of a “Good Class”
You will often hear people looking for a “good class”. While some may be looking for a class in which you can learn a lot from a respectable professor, some also mean an “Easy A” class – a class where you don’t have to work hard. Though it is tempting (who doesn’t want an A?), remember that college should be more than getting good grades. Will this class challenge you? Will you learn something that will be useful when you enter the workforce? Even if you have to work a bit harder, truly good classes will challenge your skills and give you an opportunity to learn about yourself.

3.     Join Clubs and Organizations and Be Active
Just joining an organization is not enough. Do something. Take charge. Bring up new ideas to the club and accomplish something, whether it is creating a new event of fundraising for a good cause. While developing essential leadership skills, you will also find yourself a supportive group of friends who have the same interests and goals as you.

4.     Make Connections and Take Them Seriously
Just because I am interested in social justice doesn’t mean I only hang out with people with the same interests. Meet different types of people and make connections. You never know when and where they might be able to help you out. Be thankful for their existences in your life. A lot of the connections I made help me throughout my graduate school application process and I feel very lucky to always have their support.

I still have a lot to learn myself, but I am thrilled to continue on my education in fields I am passionate about. Don’t think about learning as a boring process but rather a journey where you find yourself and your dreams. If you are an architect who is passionate about the environment, think about ways to build structures that are environmentally friendly. If you are an engineer who is passionate about dancing, think about ways to better dance stages or shows by creating new mechanics and equipments used in backstage. Your goals are limitless; all you have to do is find your passion in something and incorporate your knowledge.

Sarah Hong
South Korea
Bachelor: Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

McKinsey Germany

McKinsey Germany will be hosting an information session here on campus (Wolverine, Michigan Union) for German-speaking students with an interest in their firm. Stop by if interested. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

For the love of shopping

As a shopping lover, you might be an expert in shopping in your home country, but I’m sure you will need these tips and strategies to survive in the overwhelming shopping choices and stores in the US.
Save for the most necessary ones. Here in Ann Arbor, first and foremost, you need to be well equipped for winter because winter is not far when fall comes. In order to survive in the five to six months’ winter time, you need to get your winter clothes ready. Winter clothes usually cost more than summer t-shirts, so be prepared to spend some good amount of money on your winter clothes to keep you warm and comfortable. Don’t buy too much when clothes are on sale before you make sure you really need them.
Consider textbook as a part of your budget. Don’t expect you can deal with textbooks within a few bucks. However, there are still ways to save on textbook spending. I believe most of you know about Amazon, but how about Amazon Student Prime. Currently, Amazon has six-month membership free trial which can give you unlimited two-day free shipping for half a year. How does that sound? There is more textbook-focused website like Chegg which makes it more convenient to rent and purchase books. Half-ebay also has good deals on used textbooks. It is really your choice to choose between purchasing new books or used ones. I would recommend used books because according to my experiences, I’ve always been surprised and satisfied with the quality of used books. Make sure you are looking for the required edition or ask your professor before you make the purchase. Finally, don’t forget the UM Book Exchange in the beginning of every semester.
Search for online coupons. You can always find online coupons of some online stores, such as Sephora (personal care), H&M (clothes), etc. Try to search online coupons (you can simply put “store name” coupon in Google) before you place the order, there is always surprise out there that could save your money, so why not?
Take advantage of what university has to offer. You can go almost anywhere with public transportation free of charge using your MCard. You will get a $15 eye exam annually and discount on glasses and contact lens with your student insurance. In addition, if you like socializing, our campus has an array of museums, movie nights and social events for cheaper price or even free.
Use a free finance management tool. For example, Mint.com also has its corresponding apps in smartphones, which is really convenient and keeps track of your money automatically. It is much easier to manage your finance when you actually know where your money goes.  I found it really useful as it gives you a visual look of your spending and earning, and it also divides your spending into categories, such as shopping, grocery, so that you will not over spend on any certain categories. Most importantly, it is safe, free and automatic.
Share with your friends. It is always a good idea to share with your friends your tips and tricks for shopping, and you might get better suggestions from them in return. At the same time, you can make friends by having shopping as a common interest and make your next shopping trip much more fun.
All of these are just some tips that I use for shopping and financial management in the US. They are not official or authoritative, and sometimes it might not fit for your shopping style. The best way is to figure out your own as you experience through this life journey in the US. If you want to know more specific about shopping in Ann Arbor, don’t forget to join us in the August workshops! Welcome to Michigan and good luck to all of you!

Enni Zhao
Transfer Connections Summer Coordinator
Transfer Connections Mentor

International Center Summer Orientation Peer Adviser

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

As Changeable As Weather

The weather in Ann Arbor is totally unpredictable and sometimes extreme; as Jeff Foxworthy once said, "If you've ever worn shorts and a parka on the same day -- you might be in Michigan." It could vary unexpectedly and in a very short span of time. Some days might start sunny, heavy rain for the afternoon (may be with thunderstorm warning) and might get too cold in the evening.
Ann Arbor averages 45-50 inches of snow per winter season. We had our snowiest winter on record last year with 90.3 inches, but some years can have much less snow, on the order of 25-30 inches. Either way, it will be an experience if you’ve never seen one before. But winter can be fun and I can assure you no picture can do the beauty of a fresh snowfall justice. Now, as a college student, there is NO better time than Fall in Ann Arbor! The trees turning colors, apple cider, U of M football, the crisp weather- there is no time like it (Ann Arbor is a huge college town, as you may already know). Spring may take a while to get here (it usually snows a few times in April), but again, seeing everything come alive from winter is neat. Lastly, summer will be VERY comfortable as it doesn’t get too hot (at least not as my hometown in India). There will be a handful of hot summer days in the 90s, and also a handful of cool summer days in the 60s-70s, but the huge majority of summer is sunny with highs in the 80s.
To realistically prepare them for an Ann Arbor winter- What locals consider a "mild" or "easy" winter would be one where the temperature only gets into the single digits a few times, with many winter days thawing in the 30s and 40s (all temperatures in Fahrenheit), and snowfall totals only around 20-25" by the time spring comes (of course this being the total, not all at once). A "severe" winter would see several dozen weeks’ worth of lows below zero, not seeing 30 degrees for over a month, and seeing upwards of 60-70"+ of snow. There are some nice places around to shop for winters.
There are lot of options, like Briarwood Mall, Burlington Coat Factory etc. are available around for winter’s shopping. Having proper clothes and shoes are very important especially during snowfall. Negligence could be very dangerous and could lead to very serious health issues like frostbite etc. Snow shovels and other equipments are also available in community centers and with resident advisors.
Don’t be scared and don’t hesitate to ask for help from senior students, faculty or staff members and everyone here would be happy to help you. We live like a family and support and love each other like one. Have a happy stay in Ann Arbor!

Prepared by Deepak Singh
Summer Orientation Peer Adviser from India
Ph.D. student in Atmospheric Oceanic and Space Sciences

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Night Life

As is expected of a university town, Ann Arbor is known for its diversity and vibrancy. One of the beautiful things about the city is how the University and the city are so intertwined that within the central and south campuses you are sometimes unaware of where one stops and the other begins.
As a result of this diversity, night life in Ann Arbor is a varied experience, and depending on what your flavor of fun or penchant for relaxation is, you might have several options available to you to choose from. With its host of restaurants, bars, lounges, and clubs, Ann Arbor has a very active night life.
If you’re like me and after a week of classes you enjoy relaxing with music, dancing, and games like billiards or darts, then the establishments below and a host of others can cater to your needs.
Located in the basement of the restaurant Lena, on the corner of Main and Liberty, Habana is one of my favorite night spots. Thursdays here is Salsa night, and the music is predominantly of the Latin American variety; usually suited to Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Cha Cha and Reggaeton genres. On Friday and Saturday nights the DJs play a mix of popular music from several genres. With a 3.5 rating on Yelp, it’s definitely worth an experience. As is expected of a club, it has an age restriction of 21.
Rush Street
Also located on Main Street, Rush Street also features popular music on Fridays and Saturdays. With a considerably sized lounge area, it caters to the needs of people who simply want to listen to music and hang out with friends and as well as those who want to get on the dance floor. It has also has an age restriction of 21.
Located on Liberty, this is a regular bar and lounge. Drinks and food are provided in an environment with a nice ambience, with patio sitting available during the times of the year when that option is worth trying. On Friday nights, a section of the lounge is transformed into a dance floor with the music mainly of the Latin American variety. The age restriction for entry is 18, although patrons younger than 21 are not allowed to purchase any alcohol.
Located on South 1st Street, Circus provides the classic bar and lounge experience with additional entertainment like karaoke and billiards. It also has a huge dance area and features mostly popular music. There is an age restriction of 21.
Located on West Liberty, Blue Karaoke provides a more private setting for having fun with friends with karaoke. With the opportunity for making reservations for parties of a certain size, it provides an ideal setting for individuals who don’t like big crowd settings. A plus for this location is the fact that on weekends, it stays open until 5am, whereas all the other clubs and bars close at 2am.
Resources like this Ann Arbor Clubs have pretty extensive lists of clubs and bars and other establishments that help make nightlife in Ann Arbor a fun experience. Add to these the myriad social events organized by student organizations and various organizations affiliated with the university and everyone, no matter their proclivity will find something fun to do in Ann Arbor.

Prepared by Femi Sawyerr 
Graduate Student from Nigeria 
Master in Natural Resources and Environment 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Campus and Community Resources

Fortunately, with a school the size of Michigan, there are countless number of on-campus resources that are available to support you, often at no additional cost to you! For instance, you probably know the International Center by now and how it can assist you.

For me, one of my biggest challenges is developing a new friendship group after arriving in the U.S. The residence hall is a great place to make friends! If you live on campus, you will meet your resident advisor soon after moving into your residence hall. They will serve as an invaluable resource to you whether by answering your questions or by putting on events so you can get to know the people in your residence hall. I made solid friends by attending the first community dinner my RA hosted and the fun events they hosted throughout the year.

In addition, exams can be very stressful since many tend to occur during the same week. If you ever feel down, stressed or overwhelmed. Don’t hesitate to pay a visit to the Counselling and Psychological Services a visit at the Michigan Union! They have trained counselors when can meet with you right away if needed. When I felt stressed the first time I had exams, I visited CAPS and got a free chair massage in their Wellness Zone. I felt really relaxed afterwards. In addition to massage chairs, they also offer yoga, meditation, Xbox Kinect and more! Give it a try!

Also, right next to CAPS is the Dean of Students office. Their office is here  to support you through tough and stressful situations and help you get on track with your studies. For instance, their office can send out an email to all your professors asking them to accommodate you academically if you are facing a hardship that is interfering with your academics.

As a freshmen, I often forgot to stay active due to the hustle and bustle of college life. Unfortunately, I was not aware of the many wellness resources my first year. I knew about University Health Services. It’s like a smaller hospital that serves only U-M students. But it was not until sophomore year did I step foot into one of the three campus recreational centers. These centers are great places for those who are serious about body-building and also for those who are simply looking to stay fit and active like myself. If you are interested, the University also offers a variety of fitness classes through a program called  U-Move. You can choose a particular class from a list of over 40 classes or get a semester pass and attend any class you would like for a whole semester. I had a semester pass my sophomore year and went to a variety of classes including kickboxing, zumba, hip hop...

Like I said, most of these services require no additional cost. You already paid by paying tuition, so it’s not a bad idea to get your money’s worth by utilizing them!

Written by Josh Qian
Summer Orientation Peer Adviser from China 
Bachelor: Industrial and Operations Engineering