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The New Grad School

Bridging the Gap Between School and Life

By Laura Ewald

Like many of his fellow grad students, Vik Bakhru, BA ’01, immerses himself in his future profession. It is his seventh year at GW, where he has been involved with student government during his undergraduate and graduate careers. Finishing a surgical training program in May, Bakhru enjoys collaborating with medical school professors and students, hospital staff, and alumni in the field, but he has always been concerned about losing touch with the “outside” world.

“After studying and working with the same people and talking about the same subjects day after day, you start to feel isolated from what else is going on at the University,” Bakhru says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m on an island.”

Isolation at the University can cut both ways, says Kristin Williams, executive director of graduate student enrollment management. Each graduate program is an oasis of resources for its own students, she says. However, the many programs throughout the University are disconnected from one another. The result is that opportunities for growth and assistance—for both the programs themselves and the students—are sometimes missed. “The biggest problem our office faces is that graduate students have needs that we could resolve, through some program or service available in one of the schools, and they just don’t know it’s available to them.”

To bridge these gaps, GW created the Office of Grad Life in May 2004. Under the direction of Mike Walker, associate dean of students, the office aims to create a more personalized and stimulating experience for grad students.

“Our office is able to meet the needs of grad students because it was largely designed by their feedback,” Walker says. In the fall of 2003, Walker conducted a needs assessment survey; more than 9,000 surveys were sent to all registered grad students, and 30 percent were completed and returned.

“The most surprising thing we found is that, despite the balancing act grad students perform between school, jobs, families, and other responsibilities, socializing with students outside their programs is very appealing to them.”

Walker found, as his peers at other universities also are finding out, that grad students want to have fun, too.

What a Graduate Student Wants

Graduate students don’t want to be treated merely as older undergraduate students.

“Graduate students are hungry for experiences outside the classroom, they want to be with their peers, but they don’t want to be hanging out in J Street,” Walker says. “They want activities that are a bit more formal, a bit more classy. They want more ‘adult’ activities that will give them the opportunity to learn and gain new perspectives as well as have fun.”

Walker and his staff keep in mind that they’re working with a diverse population—from young master’s degree students fresh off their undergraduate careers to older parents and professionals coming back to get advanced degrees. Some have families, some are single, some are from the area, and some are from other states and countries.

And there are more of them than ever before. “There has been strong growth in graduate school enrollment during the past 20 years, says Heath Brown, MA ’99, director of research and policy analysis of the Council of Graduate Schools. From 1986 to 2003, the last year for which the council has collected statistics, there has been an average increase in graduate enrollment of 2 percent a year for the past 17 years.

Within that number, there are dramatic increases for certain groups. Between 1993 and 2000, the percentage of women in doctoral programs rose from 38 percent to 50 percent. As of 2000, women have represented 58 percent of all graduate enrollments. The percentage of master’s students who are members of a minority group rose from 17 percent to 24 percent within the past 10 years. Programs that have seen the greatest growth are in education, business, engineering, psychology, and biological and life sciences.

To accommodate these various groups, the social, educational, and networking events put on by the Office of Grad Life reflect the intellectual and cultural diversity of the students. A lesson on wine-making at Naked Mountain Vineyard and Winery in Virginia, a legal issues series featuring experts from GW Law School, basketball games at the Smith Center, and information sessions on home ownership are a few programs organized by the office its first year.

The success of these events can be measured by attendance: In August, 500 new graduate students attended a rooftop barbeque at the Marvin Center; in December, nearly 100 students toured the White House through an organized outing, and 50 went on a ski trip in Pennsylvania; and an average of 30 students attend lectures provided by GW Law faculty on subjects ranging from conflict mediation to negotiating job salaries and benefits.

For Bakhru, attending these events is something he wants to do for fun and to help him prepare for a career in medicine.

“The greatest advantage that these events afford me is exposure to new people and new activities—to my future colleagues and patients,” he says. “I will be treating patients from diverse backgrounds and with different personalities and interests. I’ll be working with hospital administrators with business and legal backgrounds as well as medical backgrounds. The more I socialize with people outside of my field, the better prepared I am when I have fully entered the work force.”

Alleviating graduate student isolation is becoming a top issue at many universities. Before launching the Office of Grad Life, Walker traveled across the country, visiting schools such as University of Chicago, Northwestern, and Princeton to see what other top universities were doing to meet the needs of their graduate and professional students. Closer to home, he also met with the University of Maryland’s coordinator of graduate student involvement, Jason Pontius.

“I don’t think isolation is a Maryland problem but something in the structure of most graduate programs,” Pontius says. “Undergraduate education spans the entire University, and undergrads are strongly encouraged to explore in their education. Conversely, graduate education is a loose collection of small, decentralized departments where graduate students master narrow sub-specialties of knowledge. They have little time or opportunity to interact with their peers.”

Pontius says one of their first initiatives—a weekly happy hour— “has been highly successful and generated one of my favorite quotes from a graduate student who said, ‘I’ve met more people in the last three hours than I’ve met in the last three years.’ ”

Walker and Pontius know that appealing to current and potential graduate students is not just good public relations for a university, it’s a necessary aspect of keeping up with a market that took a hit after Sept. 11, 2001.

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, first-time international graduate student enrollment has declined for the three consecutive academic years following 9/11. It’s too soon to tell, CGS’ Brown says, whether the 9/11 fallout will continue to be a significant factor in international enrollment, which for the last several years has accounted for around 15 percent of all graduate student enrollment in the United States. Additional factors contributing to this situation come from increased competition from other countries, such as Australia, which has been offering free English classes to foreign students, and China and Korea, which are doing a better job at trying to attract and retain their own students.

Aided by a strong international community on campus and in Washington, GW’s overall international enrollment at the undergraduate and graduate levels combined has rebounded to pre-9/11 levels. And with the help of the Grad Life office, the University is working to retain and attract more students.

One popular venue the office uses is its Web site, which averages 1,500 hits a day. The site “has become a hub of graduate student activity at the University,” Walker says, and also is being visited by prospective graduate students and other individuals outside the University.

The office uses the Web site and associated e-mails, listserv, and an online chat forum to spread the word about social activities, services, and events put on by the office itself, individual schools, or the Student Association.

“Before Grad Life came along, you had to go to 10 different offices or belong to 10 different e-mail lists to get information,” Bakhru says. “Publicity for events and services was lacking—you’d hear about an event that happened last week and think, ‘I wish I had known about that.’ Now, everything is more organized and centralized, and grad students have a better picture of what University life can be.”

Next Steps

Looking ahead, Walker hopes to find a centralized physical home for graduate student assistance services and on-campus housing for graduate students.

“Housing for grad students is one of our chief demands; we try to get them as close to campus as possible as affordably as possible,” Walker says. “We also hope to create a center for graduate and professional students, a one-stop meeting place where they can go for information and services as well as a meeting space where they can congregate. Other universities such as Harvard and Princeton have centers like this, and GW would be well served to provide that space for its graduate students.”

Bakhru says meeting these two goals would help put GW ahead of the competition when attracting potential students. “Graduate housing is what every potential student who wants to attend an urban campus is looking for. It would be a huge draw.”

And in a market that is only becoming more competitive, every little bit helps.

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