Michelle Ikoma, a student in the UNC School of Medicine, received the inaugural Paul and Frances Hoch Founders Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Student Advocacy, given in spring 2021 by Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG). It recognizes a student who has served as an exemplary advocate for graduate and professional students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
During her time at the UNC School of Medicine, Ikoma has advocated for curricular change within the medical school as the senior vice president of educational development for the student government. In addition, she has worked with the student wellness task force to create structural changes that enhance student learning and wellness opportunities. She is an active member of the UNC Club gymnastics team and mentors and tutors medical students. Ikoma has spotlighted a need for Asian American and Pacific Islander mental health care providers on campus and has spoken several times about being an Asian American and Pacific Islander student athlete.
“Michelle is committed to improving student wellness, continues to persevere through structural barriers to enact her vision, is incredibly compassionate and supportive of her mentees and teammates, and is consistently dependable,” said Ryan Collins ’11 (’21 JD), the former president of GPSG.
The award is named for Paul Hoch (MA ’75) and Frances Shamberg Hoch (MA ’69; Ph.D. ’76) who, during their time as graduate students at the University, were instrumental in the establishment of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation (now GPSG).
While graduate students, the Hochs saw an opportunity to unite graduate students in order to be better represented at the University.
“It became clear that we had something really formative with a lot of teeth in it,” Paul said. “We got a committee together and set it up and included all of the various departments.” Within a couple of years, Paul said they were able to hand over an organization that represented graduate students from a wide range of programs.
Paul said that graduate student government gave graduate students an avenue to express needs and desires that differed from those of undergraduate students. For example, more graduate students lived off campus and may have had families to care for.
“The administration was now able to listen and to hear about some of the issues that were more pertinent to graduate students than undergraduate students,” Paul said. “We awakened in graduate students that they could indeed have a say in some areas of University life.”
Both Paul and Fran have served on The Graduate School’s Graduate Education Advisory Board, with Fran serving as past chair.
Fran said a Zoom ceremony to honor Ikoma, in which Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz attended, is an example of the partnership she, Paul, and others hoped to create.
“What we dreamed of many years ago has happened,” Fran said. “This is what we’ve been after: An opportunity for graduate students to talk one on one with the chancellor and tell them what they difficulties are. We have a chancellor who really and truly understands that.”
Fran, who also served on the Board of Visitors, said she and Paul support graduate education because of the significant benefit graduate and professional students bring to Chapel Hill and beyond in terms of research and community outreach.
“We want them to continue to pursue the work that they want to do,” Paul said. “We want the opportunities to be there so graduate students can continue to pursue their careers.”