September 3, 2012

Life for Cornell’s Graduate Students ‘A Bit More Lonely’

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The dimly-lit Chapter House bustles with people drawn to its 49 beers on tap, a crowd comprised primarily of graduate students, commiserating on their long hours and small stipends, bemoaning a lack of social life as they, in fact, socialize — this, at least, was the picture Tim Gorman grad painted of graduate student life outside of the classroom, office or lab.

The joys of life as a graduate student are legion: an excellent education, the freedom to conduct individual research, a path to faculty tenure. But separate from academics, many graduate students said one facet remains sorely lacking: a sense of community.

Mariam Wassif grad said that a cumbersome academic workload can make life in the graduate school “isolating.”

“People tend to withdraw into their own research and that makes it difficult to connect with other people,” she said.

Gorman also attributed minimal cohesion among graduate students in part to the individually-focused environment of graduate school.

“It’s a more alienating lifestyle, a bit more lonely,” he said. “People are in the lab all the time or grading.”

In response to these concerns, the Graduate Professional Student Assembly will work this semester to address what its president, Mitch Paine grad, lamented as the lack of a “full sense of community” among graduate students.

With a “gigantic thesis that defines your time here always looming over you,” graduate study can be “overwhelming,” Paine said.

As the GPSA considers how to improve some graduate students’ sense of alienation, Jessica Abel grad cautioned that when planning social events, the University needs to be cognizant that graduate students are in a different stage of their lives than undergraduates.

“When we want to socialize, we generally go to bars, not ice cream socials,” she said. “I think Cornell wants to be careful to avoid treating us like undergraduates. It is sort of their responsibility to reflect and perhaps cater to a sense that graduate students are professionals rather than newbies.”

Still, others said they prefer events organized by individual departments to University-sponsored social programming.

“I meet other people in classes and [at] departmental parties because it seems like a less artificial environment [than campus-wide events],” Wassif said.

Because of the diversity of the graduate school, with students ranging from younger students fresh out of college to older students with spouses and children, not everyone needs as much help as others, according to Jonathan Lambert grad.

“I think most grad students are at a stage where they can figure things out themselves,” Lambert said.

Still, Wassif said that while graduate students do not necessarily require the same degree of social support as undergraduates, the University should offer more programs to foster a sense of community when graduate students first arrive in Ithaca.

“The most alienating years of grad school for me were the first two,” Wassif said. “I didn’t know anybody and it was difficult to get to know people. I didn’t find people very receptive.”

Paine said that the University offers on-campus options for graduate students to socialize. The Big Red Barn is generally considered the central hub of the graduate community, he said.

Gorman said that events held at the Big Red Barn –– which include $1 beers, coffee hours, trivia nights and T.G.I.F., or Tell Grads It’s Friday — are popular among graduate students.

“The Big Red Barn … is appreciated in terms of people taking study breaks — long study breaks,” Gorman said, citing the $1 beer.

Still, Abel, a first-year graduate student, said that she does not know a lot of people in Ithaca yet and is finding her first year so far to be “a little lonely.” Still, she said she is optimistic about her future at Cornell.

“I have so much to … appreciate about the other aspects of coming here … that I haven’t had my loneliness bring me down yet,” Abel said. “Moreover, I’m sure it will pass with time.”

Original Author: Nikki Lee