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Returning to the Graduate Center Bar (GCB)

Visiting the campus bar where, 27 years ago, I met my wife.

September 16, 2019
 
 

Photo credit Wolf Matthewson

Twenty-seven years and some months ago, my wife and I met at the GCB - otherwise known as the Graduate Center Bar. She was a first-year MFA student (creative writing). I was a first-year grad student in sociology.

This past weekend, we returned to visit the place where it all began for us.

We both look back at grad school was something of a magical time in our lives. Grad school for two people in their early twenties, lacking responsibilities of mortgages or childcare responsibilities, felt like a barely believable luxury.

Both of us had our tuitions covered, in addition to receiving a monthly stipend. My stipend in 1992 was $8,700 per year. This does not sound like a lot of money. But when your only expenses are rent (cheap in a shared house) and food (minus eating at university and departmental events - which were plentiful).

Many of my strongest and happiest memories of grad school were not formed in seminar rooms or computer labs of libraries, but at the Graduate Center Bar.

The GCB was first opened in 1969 to "facilitate intercourse" between graduate students and faculty. I don't remember any faculty hanging out at the GCB in the early 1990s, but the bar did a marvelous job of facilitating intercourse between grad students.

What made the GCB so great in my grad student days was its status as a no-stress zone. The GCB was quiet enough to read a book (we didn't have laptops or iPads or smartphones back then), while also boasting of low-cost pool tables (I think 50 cents a game) and a fantastic selection of beers.

Unlike other bars, the GCB was (and is) not just for drinking. It was common to see grad students sitting around discussing their research, playing a board game, or (again) just reading a book. The GCB would get louder at nights and on the weekends, as the same scrabble playing and book reading grad students shifted their attention to playing pool and drinking beer.

Despite my happy memories of my grad school years, the reality is that graduate school can be a stressful time. Nobody who ever sets out to write a dissertation knows what they are doing. The transition from consumer to producer of knowledge can be painful.

All of this is before any grad student starts to worry about the dismal academic job market. Getting through grad school seems hard enough, even without the anxiety of what one will do once the dissertation is done.

The GCB leases its space from the university. It is run as a nonprofit private club. (Hence the annual membership, which is purchased in bulk for graduate and medical students). Excess profits of the GCB go to charity. (Such as a GCB sponsored little league team, as well as local food banks).

Does the GCB hold a similar place as a builder of social capital and a refuge from departmental politics for grad students and med students today as in the 1990s? I don't know.

How common is it across our higher ed ecosystem to have a neutral semi-university social space for graduate students to congregate and relax? As far as I know, there has been no census of graduate student bars.

Should graduate students have a place of their own (with taps and pool tables) on every campus with a PhD program? Not a bad question to ask prospective graduate students deciding on which program to apply.

What was your equivalent of the GCB in grad school?

If you are one part of a dual-academic couple, where did you and your partner meet?

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