Volume 78 | Issue 2
March  2010

Creating campus community for graduate students through programs, services, and facilities

Jodie Kern-Bowen & Rick Gardner

Many factors have fueled the increased attention to graduate student programming and dedicated graduate student space, not the least of which is the growth of this campus population. The Council of Graduate Schools reported that enrollment of U.S. first-time graduate students increased 6 percent between fall 2008 and fall 2009. This increase is consistent regardless of school size and control. Many administrators would like to see that number continue to rise and are calling on all campus departments to better serve graduate students.
“Some institutions are hoping to increase graduate enrollment, so becoming more attractive to students is a necessity,” said Monika Gibson, director for Graduate Student Services at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “Retention, particularly of doctoral students, is a significant challenge for most universities. Newer generations of graduate students have learned to expect (and demand) more, simply because they were socialized to count on certain services and support systems while they were undergraduate students.”
According to Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, “[There is a need for] a new campus emphasis at comprehensive institutions on the graduate student experience; assessing graduate student needs, barriers to degree completion, and required preprofessional skills for career success; [and] creating graduate student affairs support systems.”
Why is graduate student engagement and socialization so important? According to Gibson, it is important because it “brings graduate students together across disciplines, can provide a solid support network [and] a sense of belonging through shared experiences, encourages and enables interaction and the free exchange of ideas, and improves the quality of life for graduate students.”
Such communities are vital to retention and degree completion. The rationale is practical: the more interactions and social programs a graduate student is able to attend, the more well-rounded a student is likely to be. These engagements spur research collaborations, increase retention rates, and improve relationships with
future alumni.
At Cornell University, students voted down unionizing four years ago, but the referendum raised awareness of graduate student needs and evolved into the Graduate Community Initiative. “It created an awakening, that graduate and professional students are now on the radar,” said Kris Corda, director of the Big Red Barn graduate and professional student center. “Now, people are asking ‘How is this going to affect graduate students?’ especially when they are planning something new.”
Cornell’s Graduate Community Initiative argued that graduate students, one of the most diverse and intellectually engaged groups on our campuses, lack an overall sense of community. As a result, their ability to reach academic goals is undermined. Graduate students feel disenfranchised and undervalued in the university community as a whole, the initiative contended.
As Cornell and other campuses have found, the infrastructure to support exchange between graduate students is lacking. Now, many campuses have acknowledged these problems and are seeking to improve the quality of life for graduate and professional students with extensive programmatic offerings through a central graduate student center. For peer campuses being challenged to contribute toward graduate student retention, many of these institutions’ ideas can be incorporated into existing programs for other campus populations, college unions or student life facilities, and staffing structures.

Understanding graduate students

When coming to graduate school, students experience a wealth of unavoidable adjustments and changes related to work, living conditions, school, social relationships, and physical and emotional well-being.

“There should be recognition on your campus that graduate and professional students have unique needs, and if you lump them together with the undergrads, they will always get the back seat,” said Anita Mastroieni, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Center. “The ‘old school’ philosophy is that grad students don’t have any needs. We know that to be not true.”

In 2006, Amanda Longfield, Joanne Romas, and Jennifer Irwin conducted a study titled, “The Self-Worth, Physical and Social Activities of Graduate Students: A Qualitative Study.” Their research asked the question: “What is keeping graduate students from being involved?” The simple answers were time and workload. The research found that students reported their workload limits the time for interacting socially and for physical and mental well-being.

The transition of students from the undergraduate or work world to graduate school can be difficult. Master’s level students have at most two to three years with the university. However, doctoral students have more time for acculturation and transition. The first year of study in either master’s or doctoral level work is typically the transition year. Much like their undergraduate counterparts, students seek to establish a place within the academic and social communities during this time.

Like many students at two-year or community colleges, graduate students have “many and varied demands on their time, so they learn to be very utilitarian. They carefully have to pick and choose what to do with their discretionary time, and they will lean toward programs and services that have a direct and fairly immediate positive impact or usefulness to their current lives and pursuits,” Gibson said.

For many students, graduate school can be both intellectually challenging and socially isolating. Many times, graduate students are placed in a “cohort,” a grouping of 20–50 students that remains intact during their academic career. While this allows close bonds to form among the cohort, it also can detach them from the rest of the campu

Meeting graduate students’ needs

Programs and services

Listening to graduate students’ needs, and acting on their suggestions, is important to successful programming. In 1996, Maresi Nerad and Debra Sands Miller published their article, “Increasing Student Retention in Graduate and Professional Programs,” highlighting how the University of California–Berkeley was addressing graduate student needs. The Graduate Division at Berkeley developed a guide, Easing the Way for Graduate Students. This document publicized positive examples of successful departmental activities including orientation programs, grant proposal writing workshops, dissertation writing workshops, interdisciplinary research retreats, and job search assistance. Fast forward to 2010, and many of the programs implemented at Berkeley and other institutions have become more common both nationally and internationally.

“It’s important to view programming for graduate students as part of their graduate training, advancing their interests as professionals in training,” said Elaine Berland, associate dean of the Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis. “For example, a social event can be organized and promoted as networking, an opportunity to interact with students from other disciplines, from different groups and cultures, to be comfortable in those situations and have fun. It’s a way to support their success as students and advance their development as young professionals.”

With this approach in mind, the University of Michigan introduced a programming model in August 2006 entitled, “PLAN.” PLAN stands for Profession, Life, Academics, and Networking, and all of its programs and workshops are categorized under these themes. PLAN is a collaborative undertaking involving more than 10 offices on campus that produce programming to support graduate students. PLAN is a guide to the workshops, training sessions, talks, and other events and resources that will allow students to make the most of their graduate study and help with career planning and preparation, as well as personal development.

Graduate students are looking for specialized services outside their area of study, from help with career searches for tenured track faculty positions to others as simple as finding housing, day care, or a good place to study.

“When planning programs for graduate and professional students, don’t waste their time,” Corda said. “Time is very important to a graduate student. For example, if you are planning a resumé workshop, make sure the workshop starts on time, ends on time, and that it’s valuable.”

According to Corda, the biggest programming success at Cornell has been speed dating. “Grad students don’t have a lot of time, so in two hours they are able to meet 30 people. It started out once a year, now it’s so popular we offer it twice a semester. The feedback from students is that it is a chance to meet all these people. It’s not just about dating; we emphasize that it’s about networking with a lot of people, three minutes at a time.”

At the University of Maryland, “Speed Friending” is one of the activities that complements graduate student orientation. In cooperation with the Graduate School, another orientation event at the Stamp Student Union uses a passport activity to get new graduate students from throughout the institution to circulate around the building and includes cultural dance instruction, bowling, movies, an information fair, and a dinner of international foods.

Maureen Conway, director of student activities at the University of California–San Francisco, explained her institution’s passport events. The Passport to Success, during fall quarter, is an extended orientation to teach students about campus-wide services supporting their success. Areas covered include: health care, financial support, social activities, career development, and learning skills. This is followed by Passport to Wellness, a winter quarter incentive program to support student well-being in all areas of health. Each passport program simply requires the student to complete an activity, and then collect one stamp; after collecting six stamps, they submit their card to be entered in raffle for prizes.

Texas A&M University expanded its traditional graduate orientation program for military veterans to include programs focused on getting involved on campus, mentoring programs, and making use of their veteran benefits. As Sarah Minis, a program coordinator with Financial Aid and Veteran Benefits, explained: “Many of these graduate and professional students already have families and are starting on second careers shortly after returning from active duty.”

The University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Student Center is best known for its Dissertation Boot Camp, developed to help students progress through the difficult writing stages of the dissertation process. By offering an environment and support for intense, focused writing time, the camp provides participants with the structure and motivation to overcome typical roadblocks in the dissertation process. The Boot Camp lasts two weeks and starts each day with a mandatory four-hour writing session.

“The students love it!” Mastroieni said. “We have had many students finish after years of struggling on their dissertation because of Boot Camp.”

Virginia Tech offers weekly counseling from its Cook Counseling Center. Instead of asking graduate students to go to the counseling center, they have had great success with having the counseling center come to graduate students. The counseling center has one counselor available for walk-in sessions three days a week at its Graduate Life Center.


Like at Virginia Tech, one of the more recent trends of graduate student involvement and engagement is the provision of university spaces solely for graduate student use. These spaces can range from a lounge in the graduate college union to a dedicated structure on campus, many times called graduate life or graduate community center.

As Lisa Brandes, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University’s Graduate School, explained, a graduate student space includes a combination of “student space, specialized graduate student services and programs, graduate student affairs staff, and professionals or involved graduate students.” Regardless of the space’s size, two characteristics will help determine its success: that it is open to graduate and professional students no matter where they live or their concentration, and that it serves their need for a community gathering space.

At many institutions, the majority of graduate and professional students live off campus, with only a small number in on-campus residence halls or apartments. Nonresidential graduate student centers provide a home, or at least a living room, on campus for students.

“In these spaces, programmers are able to provide social activities, a space and a place for all graduate and professional students, a sense of community, various needed services and programs, the ability to build collaborations among students across various departments, and student employment,” Brandes said. “Many of these spaces have dedicated professional positions to assist with the functions within them such as graduate student affairs deans, graduate center directors/managers, graduate student life/services directors, and student services coordinators.”

Various models for graduate centers exist. Some, such as those at Virginia Tech, University of California–Berkeley, and Princeton University, offer complete graduate centers with residential components. Others, such as Boston College, University of California–San Francisco, and Harvard University, offer complete graduate centers without the residential component. Rutgers University, Arizona State University, University of Oklahoma, Brown University, and others offer graduate lounges or rooms in campus centers or academic buildings. Many other campuses have dedicated centers and spaces within the college union or in an academic building, or are advocating for dedicated centers or spaces for graduate students to call their own.


As Brandes explains, there are four types of staffing models for these centers or spaces. In the first model, the graduate center is operated by the graduate school. The structure is such that the graduate school houses an assistant or associate dean of student affairs, director of graduate student services, or a director of the graduate center. In this model, the graduate school dean oversees the person in this position, and this individual is an advocate, collaborator, and works closely with students and academic departments.

The second model involves the student affairs arm of the university. In this organizational structure, a graduate student life director or assistant or associate dean is housed with the student affairs division. This person works closely with the graduate school deans or directors’ offices. Another consideration in this model is that a graduate student affairs specialist can be appointed; there can be some disconnect between the graduate school, departments, and students, so it is important for a person in this position to be an effective communicator and collaborator.

The third model exists when the institution does not have a central graduate college; rather, independent graduate programs exist within colleges. For this reason, the graduate center is placed under the organization of a provost or vice president. Like the second model, communication and collaboration is again important.

The fourth and final model is a student-led structure. A full-time professional is hired and reports to a graduate student council. In this case, the graduate student council has freedom to make impactful decisions and receives a high rate of funding from the university.

Before getting started


Before creating any programs or facilities for graduate students, it is important to analyze the campus environment. This means surveying graduate students, seeing what other departments already offer, examining peer institutions, and understanding what funding methods are available.

“We all need to dig a little deeper to find out what already is going on for graduate students on our campus,” Corda said. “What is the graduate school already doing? What is the graduate student government doing? What funds are available for programming for graduate students? Are there already listserves that share information to and from these areas? Is there a shared calendar? Are there other departments already doing things for graduate students?”

The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students advised that planners answer these questions as part of their analysis: “Do graduate and professional students actively participate in the undergraduate government? Why or why not? How many graduate and professional students are on your campus? How many departments or programs offer graduate degrees? Are there graduate or professional student organizations in departments or colleges?”

The University of Pennsylvania staff “very carefully defined what was going to be our mission and very carefully defined what we were not going to do,” Mastroieni recalled. “Your supervisor has to be on board as you are defining these points. Additionally, we had a graduate student advisory board from the beginning. We didn’t develop our program in a vacuum. We were filling in legitimate needs that were out there and didn’t want to duplicate any existing services. For example, we don’t fund graduate student organizations, because this is the role of the graduate student government.”

Mastroieni continued: “[At the University of Pennsylvania], we serve grad students in a three-prong approach: we provide a home base, a place to hang out and meet each other; activities designed for graduate and professional students; and resources to be successful at Penn and a way to get to know the city of Philadelphia a little bit better.”

The University of Pennsylvania created the following guiding principles:

  • Build graduate community. For example, they take students as a group on a bus to a concert where they have purchased ticket blocks versus selling individual tickets to individual shows (which would not be building community).
  • Showcase University of Pennsylvania or Philadelphia resources. For example, they don’t take students to New York to see shows.
  • Provide added value to existing activities. For example, if there is a Salvador Dali exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the University of Pennsylvania will host a discussion with students and faculty before going to see the exhibit.
  • They do not duplicate existing programs. Many departments have services in place, and collaboration is a better strategy than trying to reinvent the same program elsewhere on campus.

Similarly, William Zeller, director of the Graduate Resource Center within the University of California–Irvine Student Center, said: “Our needs assessment identified that graduate students lead insular lives. They build connections within their academic units but have little engagement with the broader campus community. There was a need for building connections across disciplines.”

The University of California–Irvine’s assessment results helped in developing a mission, Zeller said. A 50-question electronic survey was created and sent to the campus’ graduate and professional students that asked questions about their general experiences and needs regarding campus life, services, and professional development. From this survey and focus groups, the university developed the following six points of its mission:

  1. Community development.
  2. Help transitioning from undergraduate to graduate programs.
  3. Writing support from two paid peer writing tutors focused on grant and fellowship applications, academic papers including dissertations, and writing for publications.
  4. Independent funding including locating and applying for grants. This year’s focus has been on the National Science Foundation Grants.
  5. Alternative career planning, such as skills for becoming a teacher not just a research/tenure-track faculty member.
  6. Support for international students, such as basic speaking and writing needs as well as adjustment transition and community development issues.

Naturally, as these needs evolve, the University of California–Irvine, like other campuses, will need to respond accordingly. Graduate students are increasingly present at our institutions; however, perhaps because they are typically outnumbered by undergraduates, master’s and doctoral degree candidates become a secondary population. As demonstrated through the initiatives occurring at many universities, building campus community that engages graduate students is possible, but it requires an intentional focus on tailored programs and facilities. If campuses want to retain graduate students, college union and activities professionals can take the lead in collaborating to meet this objective.