“Build a home away from home:” Interview with GSU vice-presidential candidate Abhisweta Bhattacharjee

Bhattacharjee wants to support postgraduates with “empathy and humanity”

In the race for vice-president of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), Abhisweta Bhattacharjee wants to build a “flourishing” relationship between the GSU and the postgraduate students it represents. With student welfare taking central focus in her campaign, Bhattacharjee explained that “we have everything in place, we just need the right referrals”, which relates to both financial aid for students and mental welfare.

Speaking to Trinity News over a Zoom call, Abhisweta Bhattacharjee emphasised her goal to “build a home away from home” for both international and Irish graduates. Originally from India, Bhattacharjee studied her undergraduate degree in psychology at Victoria Institute in Kolkata where she was a class representative. Bhattacharjee is currently studying for a masters in applied psychology in Trinity, while also embarking on an internship in Dublin. 

Discussing her vision for the vice-president role, Bhattacharjee identified the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students as among the most significant issues she would seek to address during her term. “The global pandemic will be causing great challenges for us in the upcoming times,” Bhattacharjee said, explaining that it is important now for the GSU to act as a “team” to help “deal with these strange times” and be a “pillar of support” for students. 

“I visualize the union to be a sharing unit. I am expecting a lot of issues students will have, and are still having, with assignments and submissions and their work with the thesis,” Bhattacharjee added. She outlined that she wants to “ease these stresses out” for students who may face “psychological issues” on the return to college from stress caused by the pandemic and from having to have a “distant education from nowhere”. She expressed: “I aim to be there with basic empathy and humanity, to be there beside my fellow people and see all of this as a family going through a crisis together, because we go through this together.”

Discussing the GSU’s relationship the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), which it is not a member organization of, Bhattacharjee explained how she would have to do more research to answer appropriately. However, she did express how she would push for GSU recognition from the union, following further research. USI does not currently recognise the GSU as a students’ union, as they recognise Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) as the official union of all Trinity students. This has been a contested issue within the GSU, and some former GSU presidents and vice-presidents have expressed a desire to gain member status or to eliminate the levy paid to USI by postgraduate students.

Speaking about the role of women in the GSU, Bhattacharjee expressed that it is “rather important” for women to be involved in the union. This year, the GSU’s two sabbatical positions – president and vice-president – were held by women, alongside a team of five women in sabbatical roles in Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). Bhattacharjee outlined that it’s not as simple as only “having positions in the GSU for women”, but that it must be a safe environment. “Now that everything is taken online, a lot of cyberbullying and discrimination may start coming up,” Bhattacharjee said. She pointed to the LGBT+ community and other minority groups and said she would consider their needs also, because they “are the communities that sometimes get undue suppression and their voice does not clearly reach out”.

Throughout the interview, Bhattacharjee referenced the work of incumbent vice-president and sole candidate for president Gisèle Scanlon, and said that she worked  “unofficially” with Scanlon this year in planning events for Irish and international students to encourage “bonding” between students and reduce stress. When asked about GSU engagement, Bhattacharjee directly spoke about Scanlon’s role, expressing that she thought Scanlon did “extremely well” by being available to students “in person” rather than only through emails. “I am very keen on building on this philosophy that Gisèle has shown me, of honesty and empathy, and being there for the students,” she explained. 

Bhattacharjee expressed that if elected she would like to work with Scanlon, “all going well”, on plans to build a “safe online portal” where postgraduates can access information and communication can be made with “a lot of security”. She hopes to also hold more events for postgraduate students next year: “We are still looking forward to creating these events and reducing the stress, but the most important thing right now is to adjust to a world that is post pandemic, taking care of social distancing.”

She added: “While we don’t want to compromise on how we increase interaction between the union and the students, we will have to do it online.” Bhattacharjee explained that this is where the plan for an “IT cell” for the union comes up, because now everything will have to take the form of “an email or phone call”. When asked if there were any solid plans in place yet for this IT cell, Bhattacharjee expressed that she and Scanlon had “casual talks about it” before she had to return home due to the pandemic. She suggested that some computer science students are willing to engage in projects to “help their fellow students”. 

In February, College reversed a decision to cut pay for PhD workers that would have seen laboratory demonstrators’ hourly rate reduced by between €2 and €4 an hour following protest from postgraduate students. Discussing how she would seek to prevent cuts to PhD workers’ wages resurfacing, Bhattacharjee said that “the PhDs in need of assistance can always turn to the vice-president” and that their concerns would be “promptly looked after” and that “I aim to be the person they can fall upon, be it an enquiry about a research material or books, or their psychological or physical welfare, or financial aid”. By “financial aid”, Bhattacharjee referred to College’s postgraduate student assistant fund, which she thinks students are “not very sure” about how they can avail of. She expressed how the “correct referrals” for students could be “very important” in helping students with difficult issues. “We have the resources, we just need the referrals to go there,” she explained. 

The union’s response to the proposed pay cuts was a catalyst for public disagreement between Scanlon and current GSU President Shaz Oye. When asked about how she would prevent similar tensions arising this year in the GSU, Bhattacharjee reiterated that she and Scanlon had already been “working together unofficially for a lot of things”.

“Care, empathy and honesty, and also clear communication, can do wonders.”

Shannon Connolly

Shannon Connolly is the News Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Fresh English and Philosophy student.