Cultivating the 'Whole' Graduate Student

October 12, 2006

The phrase "graduate student life" has traditionally been something of an oxymoron in higher education. Doctoral students train diligently, often siloed in their academic departments, spend most of their non-classroom hours either teaching or studying solo in the library, and typically live in off-campus apartments. While many institutions have improved how they pay and prepare graduate students in recent years, fewer have paid significant attention to their lives as people, too.

Virginia Tech has taken the full acculturation of its doctoral students to a new level, with the formal opening last week of its Graduate Life Center. The newly renovated facility, formerly home to the alumni association, provides a one-stop home for graduate students right in the heart of the university's campus, with housing for more than 100 grad students, offices for all graduate school administrators, and an array of academic, professional and social services and activities.

"There's a reason we named it the Graduate Life Center, not the Graduate Education Center," says Karen P. DePauw, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate school. "This is meant to be a space and a place where we can do all of the transformative graduate education we're aiming for, building not only an intellectual community, but a social network."

The university's goal, DePauw says, is to give graduate and professional students a central place in which they can receive professional training, engage in cross-disciplinary discussion with young scholars from other departments, interact with administrators and professors and, when necessary, just plain veg out.

The center's computer lab offers software and services that are not found on most campus computers, including a statistics package most doctoral students need for their course work. A restaurant and coffee kiosk provide nourishment.

And a look at the center's events calendar for this week offers a sense of the diversity of its offerings: Tuesday is yoga class, Wednesday is filled with seminars on a federal job or internship and on job search strategies for international students, Thursday features a book club for graduate students and their family members, and Friday offers both game night and a weekly speaker series.

"You can be in the lounge and have MFA's talking to polymer scientists talking to geneticists," says DePauw. "Some academic programs do an excellent job of preparing their graduate studs to go into the work place, but don't get out of their silos, the academic unit. This is where we provide the opportunity for graduate students to interact with each other, in professional and social settings alike."

Tonya Saddler, a third-year doctoral student in educational leadership and policy studies, says that students have been impressed not only by the graduate facility and its offerings but by what its existence says about the place of graduate education at Virginia Tech. "Putting this much money and effort and energy into a facility solely for us gives the impression that Virginia Tech is focused on graduate education, and helps makes students more aware of what the graduate school has to offer," she says.

Robert Sowell, former graduate dean at North Carolina State University and now a senior scholar in residence at the Council of Graduate Schools, calls Virginia Tech's approach "a very, very creative thing to do." Typically, he says, "we expect and assume that the individual department will look after the 'whole' graduate student," but the extent to which that happens naturally varies.

"The fact that this is being done at the university level" makes Virginia Tech's program unusual, he says, and "it's going to give Virginia Tech a competitive edge in terms of competing for graduate students."

If Sowell has his way, at least one university might catch up. He says that upon learning of Virginia Tech's new initiative, he sent information about it to his former colleagues at North Carolina State, "suggesting that they look into it."

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