Supporting Graduate Students in the Summer Session

It can be an especially difficult time for grad students, as many have less structure in their days and now they're in the middle of a pandemic, writes Leslie Ellen Blood.

June 9, 2020
 
 
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On March 10, while I was presenting at the Western Association of Graduate Schools conference, my dean and assistant dean quietly sneaked out of my presentation for crisis management meetings. Over the next 48 hours, the University of Colorado at Boulder quickly moved all classes and services online in order to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19.

I attended a few crash-course Zoom teaching lessons and shifted my graduate student and faculty programming online. Over the course of a few days, the self-register function in Canvas allowed all our students to continue with support services, workshops and seminars housed in our Grad + program. Long story short, in our Endurance Ph.D. seminars, part of our Grad + program, enrollment doubled in less than a week.

Having finished our spring semester, we are now moving into our summer programming. The summer can be an especially difficult time for graduate students, as many have less structure in their days. Now that many of our students are working remotely without regular visits to the campus, we have to create new transition triggers to help organize their time and maximize how much work they are able to get done. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and most of our work and our graduate students’ work will have to continue remotely at least throughout the summer or in a hybrid format until we find a safe way to bring everyone back to the campus.

Students have desperately needed structure and scheduling support during this time. Working from home is hard for everyone, but graduate students can easily fall through the cracks if we do not provide community, contact, a growth mind-set and accountability.

Building community. I would venture to guess that many of us, even those of us who are introverted or work alone much of the time, have been surprised at just how important our professional and personal contacts are in our lives. My graduate students have all said that community-building communication has been the most important service our online programming has provided. While they care about productivity and accountability, just talking to their peers has helped them to remain positive and to avoid the depression that isolation can bring. While it takes more work to support a community of students using Canvas or Zoom, I find that the students are closer ever and have been creating friendships that are helping sustain them through this challenging time.

So how is this different from face-to-face experiences? The need for interaction has been driving students to the discussion forums, Zoom seminars and group texts. Here are some examples of what I have seen them organize among themselves during these last few weeks:

  • Grad student happy hours over Zoom
  • Defense celebrations over Zoom
  • Lots of accountability support in Canvas discussion forums
  • Planned virtual graduation ceremonies with words from advisers

Many of our grad students graduate over the summer. The lack of fanfare has been difficult for many of them, but it has not been hard to find ways to celebrate their accomplishments on Zoom. In fact, we have had incredible success in planning and hosting these mini graduation ceremonies for our students. Here are a few ideas that we’ve found successful: invite advisers, committee members, friends and family. Create a slideshow showcasing the student’s accomplishments. Play the institution’s fight song. Dress up in regalia. This is the perfect time to pull out all the stops.

Needless to say, I have been incredibly proud and quite emotional about the success of my students as we have honored them. While it may be less formal, it has certainly not been less special.

Making contact. Making contact is the part that many professors and administrators have a hard time managing. How is it that when we see our students less, we end up needing to talk to them more? I am smiling as I write this because I find myself making quick five- to 10-minute calls to students who need time management help or a morale boost. I never really did this when we were meeting face-to-face.

And I’ve found that just those few minutes of one-on-one productivity and accountability coaching can turn a student’s whole day around. They need to know that someone cares, sees their progress, understands their work and believes in them. This is more important now than ever since we’ve had so many fewer opportunities for casual contact on our campuses.

While I am sure this is not for everyone, we’ve set up group texts for all of our seminars. Whoever wants to join the group can do so. Everyone is able to share schedules, accomplishments, challenges and even funny memes. The best part is that they are no longer working in a vacuum. I’ve encouraged them to send photos back and forth as they move through their days.

Recently, I’ve received photos of finals, screenshots of grades and submissions. We can all benefit from seeing our peers succeed even in the face of COVID-19. I usually pop in and out of the text conversations, and it allows me to see what the students need help with throughout the day. They can also ask questions, and I answer as soon as I can.

The contact element is incredibly important as we move through the summer. Given travel, breaks from in-person instruction and fewer meetings with advisers, students need attention more than ever. I always remind them that nothing has changed in our programming support over the summer, and I will be working and paying attention to their needs and progress.

Having a growth mind-set. Before the current pandemic, not much had changed since I had gone to graduate school back in 2004. But over the course of 48 hours, I felt like everything had to evolve quickly. In academe, it seems that we often rely on tradition to dictate our direction, and the current challenges have forced many of us to rethink our approaches. We can no longer rely on what has worked historically, because we have to create a new plan to survive.

Administrators and faculty members are quickly learning new technologies, creating new policies and finding ways to adapt our “rules” to allow for more flexibility to ensure student success. To be a successful educator, you have to be willing to relearn and unlearn on a regular basis. Now is the time to implement all of the ideals we never thought would see the light of day.

Every week, I tell my students that we can use this period of time to improve the system we are all a part of. The importance of learned optimism comes up frequently when we have to be flexible in the ways we research, teach and learn. Character is built during the struggle and is shown when we come out the other side. Helping our students adapt to a growth mind-set will help them move through this period with more optimism and grace.

I keep hearing questions from students, faculty and staff about how higher education will look post-pandemic. This is the perfect time to test ourselves, try new things and embrace positive change that will lead to more innovative approaches in universities nationwide. I also secretly believe that because of these challenges, and a rapid and forced adaptation of the growth mind-set, we will be graduating tougher, more creative and resilient students.

Encouraging accountability. Every week, I also meet with students over Zoom, many of whom live alone. They do not have as much contact with other students, faculty advisers or campus support staff, and many of them have felt very isolated. That does not help with retention. So to combat the Ph.D. stall-out, I have tried to focus on specific accountability practices.

Students I work with are accountable to me and the other students enrolled in the seminar. We share one giant calendar with deadlines, goals, events -- you name it, it is on there. We use Canvas discussion forums heavily and have group texts for each seminar class. If you are thinking that it seems like a lot of work, it is and it isn’t.

The real challenge comes in reminding students to focus on the “why.” Motivation tends to wane when work becomes less visible. In fact, quarantine is the perfect storm for students who need external accountability and regular feedback. Our accountability seminars take care of certain aspects, but the most helpful component for productivity and motivation is to remember why we are here.

We know this quarantine portion of our academic careers is temporary. It is just one more hoop students have to jump through on their way to graduation. What stays with us forever is the driving factor behind why we started graduate school in the first place.

In seminar settings over Zoom, it is easy for students to be inspired by each other’s successes and to find support during the challenges that present themselves during our academic journey. We do not succeed alone. Reminders help to keep my students accountable not only to themselves but their peers.

Ultimately, you have to go through hard times to know you can get through hard times. COVID-19 is asking us to rethink our academic mission and to dig deep to find creative ways to improve our teaching and learning. Your students need you now more than they have ever needed you before. Show up. Do the work. Reap the rewards. Education is a service profession, and times like these allow excellent educators to shine in ways that they may not be able to in the regular classroom.

Teaching remotely takes creativity, dedication and regular contact. We may never go back to the way it was before. This challenge will forever change the way we think about delivering content to students. I would like to approach that from a growth mind-set and see the possibilities instead of mourning the loss of security surrounding the way we’ve always done it before.

Bio

Leslie Ellen Blood is the director of graduate community and professional development at the Graduate School of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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