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
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 Im 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 assistancefor both the programs themselves and the
studentsare 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 dont know its
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
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
Walker found, as his peers at other universities
also are finding out, that grad students want to have fun,
What a Graduate Student Wants
Graduate students dont 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 dont 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
adult activities that will give them the opportunity
to learn and gain new perspectives as well as have fun.
and his staff keep in mind that theyre working with
a diverse populationfrom young masters 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
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 masters 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
The greatest advantage that these
events afford me is exposure to new people and new activitiesto
my future colleagues and patients, he says. I
will be treating patients from diverse backgrounds and with
different personalities and interests. Ill 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 Marylands
coordinator of graduate student involvement, Jason Pontius.
I dont 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
Pontius says one of their first initiativesa
weekly happy hour has been highly successful and
generated one of my favorite quotes from a graduate student
who said, Ive met more people in the last three
hours than Ive 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, its 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. Its
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, GWs 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 lackingyoud 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.
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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2005 Table of Contents