Varun Joshi: Graduate and undergraduate students need more chances to interact

We’ve all heard of “the GW community.” As my time at GW nears its end, I’ve been reflecting on that term, and I’ve had trouble pinning down exactly what it means.

Almost everyone on campus promotes the concept of a campus community, from University officials to members of the Student Association. But one common thread in conversations about the GW community is its predominantly undergraduate focus – which means the narrative about our community may not be as inclusive as we think.

Graduate students’ campus experience is very distinct from the undergraduate experience. While they may frequent Gelman Library – and by extension, Gelbucks – just as often as we do, they simply have fewer opportunities to explore and integrate themselves into student life around campus. GW should rectify this by organizing informal campus events catered to graduate and undergraduate students to benefit both groups.

Graduate students’ disconnect could be because they may be older, have families, work full time or live off campus. Most graduate students, outside of the relatively responsibility-free undergraduate bubble, will commute to campus mainly for classes or meetings with professors instead of for a student organization.

And while undergraduate education uses a wide breadth of courses, graduate education is completely specialized and focuses on developing depth in one subject. So it’s more likely that graduate students will cluster within their own departments, interacting only with professors and other graduate students within their own field.

I have rarely interacted with any graduate students, apart from when they led my introductory course discussion sections, and I think that’s true for most undergraduates. Recognizing this gap, Student Association President Andie Dowd included graduate students in her platform last spring, promising to better integrate graduate students into the student body. Unfortunately, we don’t know much yet about how she plans to do that.

But we shouldn’t wait for Dowd’s idea to come to fruition. Instead, the University should organize informal on-campus events throughout the semester that involve both undergraduate and graduate students. These events can be as low-cost and easy to organize as a cookout open to both groups and their family members, or a casual networking event that provides free lunch. Since undergraduates make up the majority of student life on campus, involving graduate students in our community will go a long way toward making GW feel more like their home and less like an impersonal classroom.

GW wouldn’t be the first school to launch an initiative like this. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Student Activity Center recently began a program called Bonding Undergraduate and Graduate Students. The program is mainly for undergraduates to get advice from older, more advanced students and it helps them build close relationships.

The University could adopt a similar program here. But instead of setting it up as something only undergraduates can benefit from, officials should pitch it as something that will benefit graduates as well. They could meet undergraduates, feel more connected on campus and even learn potentially valuable information.

Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter has theorized that when it comes to making connections, “weak links” (acquaintances removed from one’s social circle) tend to be more useful than “strong links” (family or close friends). This is because your “strong links” will have the same information that you already do, while “weak links” can provide a fresh perspective.

Since graduate students are often extremely focused within their departments, undergraduates could serve as their weak links and vice versa, making connections between the two groups more valuable.

Undergraduate students would also benefit from the bond. Those considering a graduate program would have invaluable connections to turn to for advice regarding not only academics, but also valuable internships and jobs.

Both graduates and undergraduates can provide each other with new insights beyond what either party can get on its own. Integrating graduate students into the GW community can’t hurt – it will bring benefits for everyone.

Varun Joshi, a senior double majoring in economics and math, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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