October 28, 2013

HENRY: For a More Integrated Campus, Bring Grads and Undergrads Together

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On Saturday, I had what may be my first real social interaction with graduate students in my time at this University. I attended the Law School’s Fall Ball with a friend and encountered an entire universe of Cornell life that I had never previously been exposed to. More than three years into my time at Cornell, it took until this year for me to engage with the graduate community in any substantive way.

The novelty of the situation made me think about how the undergraduate and graduate communities interact. Which is to say that I counted the arenas I could think of that facilitated interaction between grads and undergrads, and I came up with very few.

This thought process felt particularly prescient after a campus tour I gave that same day. A prospective student’s parent asked me whether there was “frequent interaction” between grad students and undergrads. I found myself providing a halting, awkward answer because, in truth, I couldn’t think of many organized channels that provide an opportunity for students from these two communities to mix.

Before considering what already exists in the way of graduate-undergraduate connections, however, we have to decide what results could arise from promoting interaction between undergraduate and graduate students. The opportunities in this respect are two-fold: academic and social. On the academic front, there’s a lot to be learned between the two groups. In many respects, though graduate students have a more advanced level of education, the assumption that the two groups benefit from being kept largely separate in the classroom ignores the fact that each individual has a great deal to share in the classroom, regardless of year.

Socially, the opportunities also seem numerous. Take this weekend for example — spending time among the graduate community did me the obvious service of facilitating new friendships and broadening my connections on campus. Furthermore, several grads I spoke to reported a general feeling of social alienation on the part of some graduate communities at Cornell. The mutual uninvolvement of those communities could be improved by both populations and the administration alike to help create a more open campus.

In my experience, I’ve encountered grad students through both organized and more spontaneous academic channels. The first and most obvious is my relationship with TAs in class. This relationship has been enriching on many occasions but doesn’t really achieve the potential of what could exist between the two levels of scholarship. The greatest hurdle to that type of relationship is that TAs grade and assess undergraduate work — this creates a teacher-student dynamic that can, in many cases, impede potential conversation and relationships between two people who might otherwise be close in age and share things in common.

In a second organized instance, I have had the opportunity, like many upperclassmen, to take classes with Ph.D. candidates and law students. These classes have been some of the best in my Cornell career, and I don’t doubt for a second that their participation was key in that.  These classes are usually at the 4000 level, however, and frequently rely on an undergraduate student’s relationship with the professor to get into.

Another opportunity for connecting grads with undergrads is through campus clubs that actually solicit involvement from both graduate and undergraduate students. A good example of this is the Cornell Prison Education Program, which brings graduate and undergraduate students together on the same teaching teams and is one of the ways I’ve connected most with graduate students.

Finally, there are those grad students who I have met through activities in the greater Ithaca community off-campus. These friendships have been by far the most fulfilling and have increased my sense of home and comfort at Cornell — and vice versa. Working at a yoga studio in the Commons was what brought me to law school functions this fall. Unfortunately, this is a prohibitive way to engage with people outside of the undergraduate population because so many people lack the instantaneous transportation option that is owning a car.

There are a few programs that aim to bring students together across education levels, like a pilot program run by the Office of Inclusion and Professional Development within the Graduate School and the CSTEP/CPOP programs within the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives. This, however, is a woefully neglected element of University life and one that could be improved.  Offering more mentorship programs, increased social opportunities and soliciting mixed involvement in student activities (particularly in byline-funded organizations) could all be steps toward a better and more integrated campus.