GRACE: I’m Grace Hébert. I’m the Communications Officer for the GEO for 2016-2017, and I’m here with Sara Roncero-Menendez from the Department of Communication.
SARA: I’ll tell the audience a little about myself. [both laugh] It’s all good. So, my name is Sara Roncero-Menendez, as Grace so graciously pronounced; it’s a hard name to pronounce. Um, I was a Master’s student at the University here in Communication, and I was a steward for the Communication Department, as well as a Co-Chair for the Stewards Council in the Academic Year of 2015-2016.
GRACE: So, Sara, why don’t you tell me about when you first got involved in GEO and why you got involved in GEO?
SARA: Well, actually, it’s because you asked me to go to a meeting. [both laugh] Uh, so, Grace was the Steward for the Communication Department when I first came to the program, and you invited – you said, ‘You know, hey do you want to go to this meeting? Do you want to see what it’s about?’ And, I said, you know, “okay.” I was willing to try new things, you know, I’m from New York, so being in Illinois was very odd for me, so I wanted to go try some new stuff, so, uh, I went to prepping for orientation. It was a Stewards Council meeting, and it was great. People were very friendly. We went over a lot of the basics, which was very useful for me, as I’ve never been in a union or was really interested in union politics. It just wasn’t something that I was familiar with. And, you know, I just sort of kept coming back, and I found that a lot of what the Stewards’ Council did was party planning, working with students on a more departmental level, and I was really used to that, as I came from a university that had a lot of like residence hall politics and that was a lot of what we did, and I was really good at it. And, I really enjoyed it, and I thought it was a great way to make friends, so that’s a lot of why I stuck with GEO.
GRACE: That’s great, yeah! And so, you were Stewards’ Council Co-Chair for this past year, 2015-2016, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about why you decided to run, what that job entails.
SARA: So, I decided to run, um, because I really enjoyed being on Stewards’ Council, and I spoke with the former Stewards’ Co-Chair, who was also named Sarah (laughs). I talked to her about it, and she thought that I would be a great fit, and I knew the other person who was running, Shawn. She was a really great partner, and we had sort of discussed like if we were going to do it, how we were going to do it, so there was a lot of open communication there. And, I just enjoyed Stewards’ Council so much. I just wanted, you know, I wanted to give it a try. I had been on residence hall councils before; I had done leadership positions; I wasn’t super comfortable with the politics, uh, but, you know, people were super ready to help. Andrea and Natalie and Bruce were super – our staff – were super on it. If I had any questions, they were happy to answer. So, I felt supported in the role. It wasn’t quite as daunting as, maybe, being president of – of the Union, but I felt that SC Co-chair it really fit into the skills and the things I wanted to do.
GRACE: That’s great, so Stewards is sort of a body where anyone can join, right? So, why don’t you tell me about the level of commitment that’s required, if I choose to become a Steward.
SARA: Honestly, it’s very flexible. We basically use – we usually have stewards come in when we need them, when we’re planning, when we’re trying to get rallies up and going. So, it’s a very flexible commitment. I wouldn’t say it’s more than maybe at most maybe two hours, three hours a week. And a lot of it is, you know, doing crafts, working with fellow graduate students, so it’s a very sort of community, team-oriented kind of stuff. And obviously we – we put a lot of stock in and value in what the Stewards have to say and what they want to do, so it’s very much not like we’re giving marching orders. We want the Stewards to be involved and to be engaged and active. So, if they have an idea for a program, we certainly look into it. If they want put [an event] into a different venue, we give that a try. And, so, honestly, it’s basically as committed as you want it to be.
GRACE: That’s great, yeah. So, could you tell me about your favorite part about being SC Co-Chair? What was your favorite thing?
SARA: Oh, so hard, there are so many great moments, but I gotta say, I really like just sort of going to the meetings. Um, over the year, we developed – people come in and out of Stewards a lot because their commitments change, or they have to work on exams – but a lot of it ended up being, you know, we would come in; we’d have these fun little icebreakers. We’d get to know each other. We’d talk; we’d share ideas and really work on that departmental level. Um, and, you know, break out into crafts or idea sharing, and it just really worked well to sort of get to know different people. Uh, and we all had a such a good time together that I really just like going to those meetings, an hour, hour and a half. And it just – it just felt like being on, like a — a fun planning committee.
GRACE: And that’s really great to hear because meetings can be one of those things where it sounds really boring. So, it’s good to hear that, like, Stewards’ meetings are actually pretty fun. So, um, going off of that, what was your favorite GEO event?
SARA: Oh man. I definitely have to say we did a trivia night – contract trivia night. Um, Andrea, one of our awesome staffers, had done a trivia night at UIC, which is the University of Illinois, Chicago, and that had worked really well. So, we were like, ‘Let’s – let’s give it a try. Like, what’s the worst that could happen?’ Um, and it turned out to be really successful. The Stewards all came together; we did questions; we went through the contract. You help us.
GRACE: I did! I was on Grievance [Committee] at the time, so I helped come up with some questions and concepts, yeah.
SARA: It was super useful. And, you know, it helped us get to know the contract better, so going into bargaining. We had a lot of fun. A lot of new people showed up. And, we had pizza and all that good stuff, so it was good time for everybody. Um, and, you know, we also got to have other Stewards. So, me and Shawn are basically the background; we did most of, like, the – this is the food, this is the venue, but we had, uh, Xander, who’s now the current SC Co-Chair, and, uh, Juan really do like the music and the hosting and the going through things. So, to give them a chance to shine too because it’s not just the “Well, I’m the officer, so I’m gonna do everything.” We’re being – we want all of our stewards to be involved and as present as they want to be.
GRACE: Yeah, that’s great and it’s good to share the burden, you know. A lot of people make event even better, having more people involved –
SARA: Xander was a great host. He was hilarious [both laugh].
GRACE: He was. He was really good. So, could you tell me what you think the biggest challenge facing the GEO, you know going forward, is?
SARA: Definitely, as we go into bargaining, it’s gonna [sic] be a lot about getting people involved and getting them to stay. Because a lot of what’s gonna [sic] happen coming into bargaining is that there’s going to be a lot of sort of organizing, getting departments together and if we need to go on strike, getting that voted and getting people to, you know, show the university that we are together. And, that can be hard because we’re such a huge campus. We’re huge, and we have so many different departments. So, I really think the big thing is, like, we need to make sure that we really make people aware that we’re here, but also really just to retain [members] and add new members.
GRACE: That’s great. So, if I’m a grad student who wants to be involved what advice do you have for me about being involved with the GEO?
SARA: I’m gonna [sic] admit that it’s a little bit daunting. [both laugh] because the Union is so big, and there’s so many parts. And, if you’re like me, who knew nothing about unions or union politics, um, you might feel a little overwhelmed. But, uh, you know, talking to a steward who’s already in Stewards’ Council is great, if you know anybody. Um, but if you don’t, I definitely just recommend going a meeting. A GMM is the easiest; it’s the biggest, and people talk about all the different committees there, what’s happening, what’s going on, so you can get sort of a feel of, like, what you might be interested in, or who you might want to talk to, um, so that’s really great. Or, you can go to the Stewards’ Council meeting; it’s super open and friendly. Um, we would never turn – like, nobody’s gonna [sic] turn you away. Nobody – nobody’s gonna [sic] be like, “mmm, [no].” They’re all very friendly, very welcoming. But, also, if you have concerns and you want to talk to somebody, Andrea and Natalie and Bruce are just super great. You know, they’ll sit down with you if you want to go get lunch with them or you just want to – just want to have a chat over some coffee. They are so great because they have so much knowledge about unions, but they’re also very friendly, and they really understand what it’s like to approach the union from lots of different angles.
GRACE: Yeah, that’s a really great point is that the staff is super available. And, I mean, they are really important for our support structure. So, yeah, you know, just shout out to Natalie, Bruce, and Andrea for being there and being awesome. You can also visit us at the GEO offices at the McKinley Foundation on 5th Street. Um, and then, finally, could you tell us a little bit about how being active in GEO impacted your experience at UIUC, your research, your studies?
SARA: I mean I have to say that sort of GEO gave me a second community to be in. Like, when you’re a graduate student, your primary community is your department, and that, at times, can be very stressful. Um, it can also be like – sometimes you just need some space because, like, research projects and all that stuff are going on and sometimes you just need a breather, right, from all that work because you can’t work 24/7. It’s very tempting to work 24/7 [both laugh] it’s not good for you. Don’t – Don’t overwork, guys, if you have an [teaching, research or grad] appointment, keep an eye on those hours. But, I have to say, going to the meetings taught me a little bit about research while still being very much engaged on a University-level, getting to know the people, getting to know what they were interested in. That sort of gave me a place that I could feel comfortable, right, it gave a place to sort of grow in different ways, than my Department was going to give me. And, you know, sometimes I would show up to meetings an hour early just to go sit in [both laugh] the room with Andrea, Natalie, and Bruce and just talk or relax or breathe, and just really sort of be present in the space that I’ve come to find is just so, honestly, home-like, um, and just really really welcoming. That, you know, it was nice; it was a good way to really engage with the community in a space that was still very grad student friendly.
GRACE: That’s really great to hear. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me and, um, hopefully if you’re watching this, you’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a Stewards’ Council member and we hope to see you at GEO.