Enhancing Career Readiness: Doctoral Students in Leadership Roles Featuring Usman Ali, Activities Director from Graduate Student Senate (GSS)

Usman Ali is the Activities Director (4/2022 – present) at Graduate Student Senate (GSS) and a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering. 

“Leadership experiences are an investment in yourself which helps you to improve your overall work style.” 

Usman Ali 

Role in the Graduate Student Senate (GSS)

“Graduate Student Senate (GSS) is a student government body that advocates for graduate students and provides a place to gather and discuss common goals for the graduate community,” Usman introduces. 

In his role, he puts together various events all year round for graduate students. He leads an activities committee that any graduate student can join, and he also works closely with members of the GSS Executive Board (e-board) for senate meetings and social event planning and implementation. As of last December, he had organized four major events including the Welcome Back BBQ and Thanksgiving Luncheon, and each saw over 400 attendees. In addition to event organization, he also represents GSS in University Senate and is a member of the Senate Executive Committee. 

A closer look at event planning at GSS

Event planning typically involves quite a few steps from idea generation to execution. “Initially I have to make a tentative plan of the event with my activities committee and decide on a tentative date, time, location, food, the estimated number of participants, and other details. Then I have to present finalized ideas to the GSS e-board in the upcoming meeting and adjust if there are new ideas or suggestions,” says Usman.

The next step is to present their planning details and have discussions with other Graduate Senators. Then they get quotes from different catering options and make reservations for locations. Meanwhile, he and his team also need to seek approval from the Trustee Student Organization Support (TSOS) to stay in compliance with financial policies. After going through all the processes, they can go ahead and start marketing the event.

Usman at Thanksgiving Luncheon in December 2022 (Photo courtesy of Usman Ali) 

Path to the leadership role 

Usman started engaging in different student organizations since his undergraduate years. “I was part of on-campus student organizations (Chairperson for IEEE Student Chapter) during my undergraduate studies, and I really enjoy working with fellow students on common goals. I joined Tarang – the largest cultural group on the UConn campus and volunteered with them for two years. I get a chance to meet great people and learn from them.” 

Apart from his experiences in student organizations, he also participated in the Leadership Certificate Series for three semesters which he believes has helped him improve his leadership and teamwork skills which he finds beneficial for his current role. 

He was also a part of the GSS Finance Committee, where he learned about the position vacancy of Activities Director. He later reached out to the former GSS president to get nominated and then elected for the position. 

Knowledge and skills building 

“This opportunity (Activities Director) allows me to practice my skills of working with a diverse team while achieving common goals and learn about the senate system of a university, “Usman says. 

Teamwork is one of the major skills he develops in his role by engaging different people working on a common goal. “GSS events usually consist of around 400 participants, and without a good team, it’s not possible to accomplish such events.” He appreciates the teamwork spirit, “I enjoy working with a great and hardworking GSS team, and their support.” 

He gains insights into the administration of higher education institutions as his work at GSS allows him to learn about the University Senate, Board of Trustees, and Executive Branch of the University. “The University Senate is a legislative body responsible for establishing minimum rules and general regulations of the educational program and mission of UConn. As a GSS representative, I learned about the procedures to create new rules that affect large populations of UConn.” He adds. 

“I believe these skills are valuable in the modern work culture, where you have to work with a diverse workforce.”

Advice for graduate students 

For graduate students who may want to consider work-related experiences beyond their academic department, especially in a leadership position, Usman further validates the idea of seeking out opportunities for building skills. “I understand that departmental GAships are great to build technical skills, but positions [outside of academic departments] like this help you to develop necessary soft skills. It improves the overall quality of life of a person and the people around you. It helps you to learn and practice skills which otherwise are not a possibility while working on technical research.”

He also envisions the skills he gains from his involvement in different organizations will help with his career development, “These skills help me to navigate diverse and complex institutes without any extra help while accomplishing my targeted goals and working for a successful career. I believe these skills are valuable in the modern work culture, where you have to work with a diverse workforce.”

Usman believes doctoral students should find the opportunity to develop their leadership skills, which will also help them with their research goals that will likely require managing a research team. As he advises, “Look for opportunities around and go for it. Leadership experiences are an investment in yourself which helps you to improve your overall work style.”

By Damiao Zoe Xu
Damiao Zoe Xu Graduate Assistant, Graduate Student and Postdoc Career Programs and Services (She/Her/Hers)