Class Act

Psychology's largest and most powerful student group, the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, started with a one-page letter written in 1987 by then-grad students David Pilon and Scott Mesh. They printed it with a dot-matrix printer, tore the letter's perforated edges off and mailed it to incoming APA President Ray Fowler, PhD.

"We proposed the creation of a student group within APA, so that students could have a voice in accreditation standards and other important issues," says Mesh, now CEO of Los Niños Services in New York City. "I didn't think it was such a radical idea."

But when the two came to Washington, D.C., to present their proposal at the APA Division Leadership Conference, they didn't get much support.

"The overall attitude was, ‘Good luck with that,'" says Pilon.

Their opponents argued that most students wouldn't have the time or energy to run a national organization, and those who did would graduate and leave the organization behind once they earned their degrees. But thanks to support from Fowler — who went on to become APA CEO — and then-Ontario Psychological Association president Pierre Ritchie, PhD, plus professors from the University of Waterloo and St. John's University (where Pilon and Mesh were attending), the proposal quickly gained momentum and was ratified in 1988 by a unanimous APA Council of Representatives vote.

Since then, APAGS has grown to 33,000 members, gained a voting seat on APA's Board of Directors and now brings student voices to every area of APA's advocacy and policy work.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that APAGS would get a voting seat on the Board of Directors and representation on all the major boards and committees," says Mesh. "Bringing students into the fold has also proven to be a smart move for APA. It strengthened the profession by representing students' interests and training the next generation of leaders."

The early years

When Pilon and Mesh took their proposal to the APA Board of Directors in 1988, there were few "good news" items on the agenda, recalls Pilon, now the program leader for specialty mental health services at a hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"At the time, APA was in a little bit of a dark place," he says. "APA had recently purchased the magazine Psychology Today, and that venture was not working out financially," Pilon recalls. "There was also considerable tension between science and practice groups within the organization."

Soon after APA's Annual Convention that year, a group of members broke ties with the organization and founded the American Psychological Society (now the Association for Psychological Science).

So when Mesh and Pilon presented APAGS to the Council of Representatives, establishing a student group was seen as a way to help unify the field. It also helped that theirs was a "no risk" proposition that involved raising student dues only $5 to fund the group, Mesh says.

The first APAGS committee, seven grad students aided by a part-time APA staff member, parlayed that small budget into big gains, establishing a newsletter, spearheading APA's first student-focused convention programming and forming ties with training organizations, including the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers. To save money, the group held its first retreat at the New Orleans home of committee member Judy Plaisance, PhD.

"We met between crab-fishing excursions," Pilon recalls.

In 1994, APAGS leaders successfully lobbied to move from their first home within APA's Education office to become a standing committee reporting to APA's Board of Directors. But perhaps the group's most significant victory came in 2003, when the group, led by then-Associate Executive Director Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, gained a voting seat on APA's Council of Representatives. Not long after — in 2009 — APAGS gained a vote on APA's Board of Directors, the association's highest level of governance.

"That really opened the door for students' concerns to be fully represented within all areas of psychology," says current APAGS Associate Executive Director Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD.

APAGS today

The growth of student influence within the field has led to many tangible benefits for students, says El-Ghoroury. In the last year alone, APAGS has successfully advocated for a $3 million internship stimulus package, a student-run journal and student membership within APA's Practice Organization. At the same time, students have joined with other APA members to ensure continued funding for the $3 million Graduate Psychology Education Program, which trains future psychologists while also bringing behavioral health care to underserved areas.

APAGS has also lived up to its promise as a proving ground for future leaders, El-Ghoroury says. Former APAGS Chairs Pilon, Mitchell Prinstein, PhD, and Kristi Van Sickle, PhD, have all served on APA's Council of Representatives, and Prinstein also led APA's Task Force on Early Career Psychologists from 2001 to 2004.

Mesh, for his part, credits his leadership experience in APAGS for giving him the confidence and organizational skills to start Los Niños Services, a 300-person multilingual agency in New York City that provides evaluations and interventions for young children with developmental delays or disorders.

In fact, he and every APAGS leader since have shown those first naysayers that students do have the time and energy to run a national organization, he says. Mesh admits that his coursework sometimes got short shrift when he was spending hours on the phone plotting what he laughingly calls "our invasion of APA." However, "I wouldn't have done it any differently," he says. "Seeing APAGS grow and develop has been one of my greatest satisfactions in life."

1987 Scott Mesh and David Pilon propose student group to APA President Ray Fowler, PhD
1988 APA Council of Representatives votes to establish APAGS as part of the Education Directorate
1991 APAGS establishes the Campus Representatives program to advocate for prescription privileges and other issues
1994 The APAGS Committee moves from ad hoc to permanent status
1996 APAGS establishes student-reviewer positions for APA journals
1998 Student representatives join the Ethics Code Revision Task Force
2003 Students gain a vote on APA's Council of Representatives. gradPSYCH launched.
2009 APAGS earns a vote on APA's Board of Directors
2012 APAGS successfully advocates for a $3 million internship stimulus package
2015 Predicted launch of APAGS-sponsored student-run journal, Translational Issues in Psychological Science