David Meni: Graduate and undergraduate students should work to understand each other

Transitioning from being an undergraduate to a graduate student at GW is sometimes surreal.

Most of my friends have moved out of Foggy Bottom or have left D.C. altogether. While I still take classes on the same campus I’ve been on for four years, my new program feels very different. But that doesn’t mean everything has changed. Without thinking about it, I know everything from the best water fountains on campus to the process of registering for classes.

Now that I’m a graduate student here, I understand the disconnect between graduate and undergraduate students at GW, who are often unaware of each other’s existence. Universities are at their best when they act as a place for the exchange of ideas and perspectives between all types of students. But right now, that doesn’t happen a whole lot between the two groups of students at GW.

Unfortunately, even when graduate and undergraduate students intentionally come together, things don’t always work well. Recently, the Student Association suspended seven senators for missing meetings – six of whom were graduate students.

I don’t want to make excuses for those that missed SA meetings. In fact, the suspensions make a strong case that some graduate students shouldn’t treat undergraduate students or undergraduate-focused activities with ambivalence. However, I think there also seems to be an indication that the SA does not accommodate graduate students well at all.

This problem in the SA points to two underlying issues I’ve noticed on campus: Graduate students aren’t doing enough to get involved in GW beyond academics, and undergraduate students misunderstand the experience of their graduate peers.

In fact, in the most recent SA election, so few graduate students knew about the SA that no one ran for either of the CCAS-G seats. Students ran last-minute write-in campaigns, without really knowing what they were getting into. This is a problem that could have been avoided with more outreach to graduate students.

The SA should learn from these suspensions and begin a dialogue about how graduate and undergraduate students interact, both within their own ranks and in GW as a whole. And this conversation shouldn’t just take place in the SA. GW should learn from this experience and begin integrating graduate students on campus like they do for incoming freshman. Perhaps graduate students could have specific programming during Colonial Inauguration or tables at the student organization fair.

Now as a graduate student, I can understand how easy it is to dismiss undergraduates. Just like seniors may scoff at freshmen struggles, graduate students often do the same with undergraduates. But there are so many incredible people I know that are undergraduates at GW – they’re just as bright and enterprising as the graduate students I know.

Of course, not all graduate students are alike. Some have far more on their plates, like a full-time jobs and families. For some graduate students, it may be hard to become any more involved on campus.

But graduate students who have time should explore ways to get involved in student life. That could mean joining student organizations that are mostly filled with undergraduate students. I was able to stay involved with many of the undergraduate organizations I participated in before I started my graduate program, and it has been a great way to continue hobbies like poetry and music that I can’t pursue in my graduate program’s more focused curriculum.

The onus for this graduate-undergraduate interaction shouldn’t be on graduate students alone. Throughout most of my first four years at GW, I rarely interacted with graduate students, aside from my teaching assistants – despite the fact that GW’s graduate student population is larger than its undergraduate population.

My scant interactions with graduate students probably came down to me not knowing that they were all around me. Now that I see so many folks in my graduate program around Foggy Bottom, I would wager that at least a third of students you see walking around Kogan Plaza are in a graduate program.

Both the graduate and undergraduate communities at GW could benefit from more interaction with each other and from viewing each other as equals. Hopefully, the recent events in the SA spark a conversation about how to encourage that interaction, rather than simply being an isolated incident.

David Meni, a graduate student studying urban policy in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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