Creating Community for Graduate Students (Part 2)
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Creating Community for Graduate Students (Part 2)

A dedicated space for graduate students to learn and congregate, as well as services that meet their specific needs, are critical for the success of this student group.

This is the conclusion of a two-part series looking at the importance of building a sense of community and belonging among graduate students. In the first part, Moore defined the community in terms of a graduate student population and shared her thoughts on a few strategies institutions could put into place from day one to support unity among graduate students. In this article, Moore explores larger-scale strategies institutions can use to maintain a lasting culture of inclusion for this group of learners.

Space matters

With so many institutions electing to go the online educational route to deliver academic programs, physical space at some institutions is considered a non-issue. However, it remains an issue in need of attention.

To better serve its students, the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School built additional space for its MBA and other master’s students at both the Harbor East and the Washington, D.C. campuses. The Harbor East location, in Baltimore, has plenty of meeting and student lounge space. Graduate students also have access to lockers and other amenities that make their time away from home more conducive to learning and comfortable.  Likewise, the Washington, D.C. campus is centrally located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood and includes similar amenities (minus the harbor), with a library for research and individual/group study sessions.

Developing space requires a financial investment. However, the investment is important to help graduate students feel connected to the campus and to give them a place to call home at the university. As mentioned previously, online graduate students could also benefit from having a cyber café for their program area to post messages, share photos and videos and forward interesting news and information.

If your university does not have a designated space (physical and/or virtual) for graduate students to converge, you are missing an opportunity. Graduate students no longer want to be confined to a few study rooms at the campus library; they want resources that support their learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Remember, the hours of operation for the space must also work with their schedules if you are building a physical location for them to meet.

Graduate students crave student services

My research has found that student services — in particular, career services, adequate academic advising and mental health/counseling services — remain an issue for graduate students.

Career advancement is often cited as a rationale for wanting to earn a graduate degree — at least for students at Johns Hopkins University in the Advanced Academic Programs whom I interviewed.  Of course, not all students are looking to advance, but for those who are, having insufficient staff in the career center to work with graduate students is a misjudgment. Graduate students will need career services programming appropriate for their professional stage (i.e. based on their years of experience and the opportunities in the field). Limiting access to the college’s career center staff may seem like a necessity due to limited resources, but it’s a narrow view. Due to the growth of professional master’s programs, career services is even more critical for this audience, who tend to enroll primarily for career advancement. Career services does not mean only individual guidance; significant work can be done in groups and/or published online as a resource for graduate students.

As for counseling services, access to free mental health counseling is a benefit some schools have moved toward. For example, Johns Hopkins offers part-time graduate students free counseling through the Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program (JHSAP). Nearly all part-time graduate divisions at Johns Hopkins combine resources to underwrite this added benefit to students.

Conclusion

According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, post-baccalaureate enrollment (master’s, doctoral and professional program enrollees) has increased every year since 1983, reaching 2.9 million students in the United States in 2010. The primary growth in graduate education has mostly been at the master’s level. At many institutions, the graduate student population will soon become too big to ignore. Failing to meet the needs of graduate students will ultimately work against the likelihood of future graduate enrollments due to potentially poor word-of-mouth promotion. Similar to the “military friendly” connotation that has emerged, schools that pay attention to their graduate students and meet their needs for community, space and student services stand a better chance of a possible future designation as a “graduate student-friendly” institution.

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2 Responses to Creating Community for Graduate Students (Part 2)

  1. Tawna Regehr Reply

    2013/12/02 at 7:29 am

    This has been an interesting series to follow. Moore offers practical advice for graduate programs looking to better attract and retain students.

    I am interested in pursuing the “cyber café” idea further. I wonder if Moore — or anyone else with experience in this — could describe in more detail the design of this online meeting space. Also, what program or application would you recommend we use to host this space?

  2. Frank Gowen Reply

    2013/12/03 at 10:17 am

    I’m glad to see a discussion around offering mental health/counseling services. In my own research, I’ve seen that graduate students tend to be more in need of this type of service than their undergraduate counterparts. Paradoxically, institutions are less likely to offer mental health/counseling services to graduate than to undergraduate students. This desperately needs to change.

    I would add that counseling services made available to graduate students should also take into account their specific needs and contexts. My research also found that, while undergraduates’ mental health issues tend to be related to school (e.g. stress near/during exam periods), graduate students tend to seek counseling for a broader range of issues, including marital issues and anxiety about finances. As you can see, two groups with very different needs. Counseling staff should be aware of this as they work with graduate students.

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