Tucked away in the northwest corner of campus, across the road from the Museum of Anthropology and flanked by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies is the Thea Koerner House, home to the UBC Graduate Student Society (GSS). The building, like the society it houses, feels hidden from the rest of campus, shielded behind a sculpted fountain and tall purple flowers. It is here that I visited the president of the GSS, Dr. Samsel Kenton, in his office.
The building is directly above Koerner’s Pub, and on Friday afternoons, laughter rises faintly through the floorboards with joyous weekend anticipation. The GSS building’s single hallway is lined with closed wooden doors barring apparently empty offices and ends at a staircase. Kenston later told me that rooftop events are usually held up those stairs, as he gestured upwards with a smile.
Kenston was wearing a fuzzy grey sweater and simple blue jeans as he opened his office door to greet me. Standing at over six feet, his head seemed to nearly graze the door frame.
Kenston is a licensed medical doctor and full-time PhD student in the School of Population and Public Health and spends half of the week in the research lab, developing his thesis on the impact of the built environment on cancer risk and incidence.
To say that Kenston has a lot on his plate is an understatement.
“It's a lot of challenge, I must say,” he said. “It's not easy, but I live strictly by my calendar. That's my only hope!”
On evenings and weekends, Kenston spends time with his wife and two young children, aged two and five. Family time helps Kenston alleviate the stress of his position.
“I’ve programmed life from the morning, and before you realize, it's nighttime. But the good thing is I go home to two active young kids who make me forget about all the stress at work, and I just have fun with them," said Kenston.
“I prioritize my family, and I balance my work and family life. So when I'm out of here, I’m out, and I spend time with [my family]. ... My son loves to play the ukulele and I play the guitar. My daughter just loves to sing like Anna [from Disney’s Frozen].”
At the start of each day, Kenston checks his beloved calendar and prioritizes his meetings “from morning to evening." The key responsibilities of the president include responding to emails, overseeing the executive team, checking in with staff and approving financial requests. While many of these tasks overflow into the weekends and evenings, he doesn't complain "because advocacy takes time."
“Graduate students are struggling," explained Kenston. "Combining research with part-time jobs so that they can afford food, prescriptions [and] a lot of graduate students have family."
“How can you make life here a little bit more comfortable during these years [at UBC]?” He said. “That’s [the GSS's] point.”
Kenston’s office is mostly empty, with a handful of chairs arranged around the room in a circle, a large black couch, a blank whiteboard stretched across one wall, and two photos of the GSS administrations from '61–63 that lean against the wall beside his desk. In the ‘62/3 image, the president was Ronald S. Tse.
A quick glance at the ‘61/2 photo showed what I had suspected: Tse was a vice-president the year before, like Kenston, who was the GSS’s vice-president of students last year. As a member of last year’s administration, Kenston has first-hand experience with “hitting the same note … [and] telling [the dean of graduate students] why graduate students are suffering and need their help” year after year.
Kenston appeared frustrated when talking about re-advocating student needs. “Last year, everything we talked about – we have to repeat ourselves again this year! It's as if when the COVID mandate was lifted … everything is back to normal. But no! [The] COVID mandate was lifted, but the financial burdens [that the previous administration advocated against] are still there.”
That’s not to say that the previous two administrations led by Kimani Karangu — Kenston’s predecessor — were unsuccessful. Karangu’s administration established an anti-racism task force within the GSS and successfully advocated for the increase of the university-wide minimum funding policy for PhD students from $18,000 to $22,000 per year. "There is definitely an overlap between some of the things we are advocating for and some of the things done by my predecessor,” said Kenston.
A passion for advocacy has followed Kenston around the globe. Originally from Ghana, he moved to China when where he advocated for international students. In 2019, Kenston travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, for an internship with the World Health Organization, where he contributed to successfully implementing of a living allowance for eligible interns in 2020.
“Whenever I find myself in a different country,” he said, “it’s like you have to fight for yourself and fight for those in similar situations as you.” Now in Canada, Kenston continues the fight with ambitious goals within his term of office.
“The long-term goal is free PhD for all,” Kenston said with a determined grin, “but within my term of office, we want to see [PhD funding go from] four-year funding to five-year funding and guaranteed minimum funding for master's students.” This vision builds on the Karangu administration's research allowance advocacy in prior years.
Kenston’s administration also plans to advocate for expanded intentional fellowships for BIPOC graduate students and students with disabilities. In his words, these students “should be recognized. By so doing you realize that their situation is unique.”
The administration is also advocating for a freeze on the annual increase in UBC graduate student housing.
Lastly, the administration hopes to create more child care facilities on the UBC campus. As Kenston puts it, “We want to shed light on what [UBC can] do to increase child care facilities in and around UBC to help graduate students and undergraduate students with families.”
Ultimately, Kenston said the high price of rent, food insecurity, high tuition costs and inaccessible childcare services are risks that threaten the mental health of graduate students.
“Accessibility for housing is not there,” he said, “and then when you get it the rent is so high you just break down." With his administration’s goals, Kenston hopes to alleviate some of these stressors.
Kenston also encourages his fellow graduate students to get involved with the GSS.
“If we have a lot of people on board, your voice becomes even louder … we can maximize our potentials … then definitely we will see the change that we desire.”