History Graduate Student Takes on GSA as VP

February 8, 2024
headshot of male grad student

Baylor University's Graduate Student Association (GSA) serves as a vital support system and advocate for graduate students campus-wide. Within this organization, James Howard is the Vice President of the GSA, bringing with him a strong commitment to advocacy and leadership. Howard's journey, spanning from his early years as a graduate student in Baylor's History Department to taking up the mantle and impacting the lives of his fellow students through GSA, reflects the university's holistic approach to graduate education. We contacted James Howard to find out more about his time at Baylor and what he seeks to accomplish as Vice President of the GSA.

First off, can you explain what GSA is? 

GSA stands for Graduate Student Association, and we seek to be a voice for all graduate students across the Baylor campus. We primarily exist to support a holistic approach to graduate education. We aim to help students in their academic and non-academic pursuits at Baylor and beyond. Whether advocating for specific graduate student needs with Baylor leadership or facilitating events that promote community and collegiality, GSA exists to enrich graduate students' careers and personal lives. 

an you tell me a little about your time at Baylor as a graduate student? What has been your favorite class or project you’ve worked on?

My time as a Baylor graduate student has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life. When my wife and I arrived in the fall of 2021, not only was family over a thousand miles away, but my wife was also four months pregnant. We had a lot to learn, and one could say a lot was on the line. I came into the Baylor community with a clear view I had embarked on a new season of life, and the History Department has been incredibly supportive in the broadest sense. Once I figured out a good routine, everything else fell into place. Aside from the main staples of reading and writing, in a given week, you can find me in my advisor’s office discussing historiography and different research ideas or grabbing coffee with one of my fellow graduate students, talking through comps prep and the dissertation process. This relational aspect of Baylor is my favorite because it emphasizes the whole person and not just the ideas we discuss. As Dr. Turpin said at my department orientation three years ago, “We know you are not brains on sticks, none of us are, and it’s important to cultivate the whole person while engaging in your research pursuits.” 

Comments such as these are not platitudes, either. While navigating life in Waco, figuring out a routine in coursework, and welcoming a newborn may seem unmanageable, the history department was behind me the whole time. Numerous colleagues delivered meals in the weeks after our daughter was born, and since then, she has become a kind of informal mascot at history department gatherings. Because a supportive environment is never guaranteed, I am genuinely thankful for the community.

The faculty in the history department is also committed to training us in ways that are helpful for our future pursuits. Even if a course lies outside your scope of interest, many classes taught me the value of engaging different approaches to my studies, how to approach conferences and the publishing industry, writing grant applications, and best practices for teaching. Actionable practices such as these are essential for doing well in our profession. 

As for coursework, my favorite class turned out to be a subject I knew absolutely nothing about: the history of childhood. Mainly, I was fascinated by how much of the study of childhood has primarily been depicted, described, and debated, not by children themselves but by adults. This paradox, so central to the field, intrigues me, especially when it is assumed the archive is silent on the topic. From the pivotal role of little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board, arguing about the role, meaning, and nature of childhood is always on the minds of adults.  

As VP what are your hopes and initiatives for GSA?

This year, the executive cabinet has led an effort to generate two new long-term initiatives. First, in the past year, as the university has undergone the process of hiring a new food contractor for the dining halls, we have worked hard to ensure that graduate students were considered for their own cost-efficient meal rates or plans. 

Secondly, amidst a new university-wide strategic plan, the executive cabinet has worked with administrators and Baylor real estate managers to coordinate improved and increased options for grad housing. A handful of us in GSA worked extensively on a “white paper” (a multi-department proposal) that laid out a plan to increase graduate student housing options in the coming years. Indeed, graduate students exist in the awkward liminal space between a student and faculty member, and explaining the difference between that in food and housing initiatives has been paramount for GSA.

We are also trying to cultivate a strong sense of belonging and care, specifically for our most vulnerable populations. International graduate students tend to face the most challenges regarding the logistics of life in Waco. This is why, just this year alone, GSA helped secure specific housing options reserved only for international students who usually are the latest to confirm attendance.

What are some of the benefits and opportunities that GSA provides for graduate students at Baylor?

Aside from the many events we hold specifically for graduate students (with lots of free food!), GSA holds annual research events such as a research poster showcase or our 3-Minute Thesis competition, both of which come with funding awards! Additionally, in the past few years, GSA successfully advocated for specific needs such as a parental leave policy, the reduction of doctoral student fees, and annual increases in doctoral research stipends.

What are some tips for incoming or prospective graduate students at Baylor University?

The most helpful thing I discovered is to remember to enjoy your experiences as much as you can—especially the challenging ones. There is no denying you will feel overwhelmed, but it is important to remember why you chose to pursue this track, understand the meaning it gives you, and have fun with it. You won’t always enjoy everything, but trying to enjoy each task to the best of your ability helps build momentum. There is something incredibly enriching about overcoming different stages in the program and seeing the value in your daily work. Dr. Sloan recently told me that in our line of work, because we are constantly poking our noses in new avenues of research, “We are never bored.” I wholeheartedly agree with this. Enjoy your work as much as possible, and always remember what prompted you to consider why you are here. Lastly, never forget that we are reading, writing, and talking about the things that give us so much energy—and we do it for a living. If I were not here, I’d still be an amateur historian for the rest of my life because I love it so much. 

What are some of the qualities or skills that transfer well from being a History graduate student to being VP of the GSA?

Whenever we gathered for a seminar, there was always a point or consideration from the readings that I had never considered. In many ways, that is the point of graduate seminars: to dissect the book in every way possible, which is nearly impossible to do on your own. The different angles of positionality and interpretation revealed significant points worthy of further consideration that I would not have otherwise been aware of. Listening to others, thinking over their perspectives, and then applying changes based on what you have learned is the essence of GSA. However, instead of using new modes of thought to help you in your research and writing, GSA leadership listens to their constituents to fully understand and better advocate their needs to Baylor leadership. 

Through his leadership, Howard embodies Baylor's values of community, resilience, and scholarly pursuit, shaping a brighter future for graduate students at the university.