Michael Wenye Li / Sun File Photo

Graduate students gather at virtual events through the Big Red Barn.

February 17, 2021

Graduate Students Call for Increased Mental Health Resources, Support

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As graduate students juggle academics, research and teaching, many struggle to find the resources to support their mental health, with some saying they feel unsupported by the University. 

Now, after receiving a number of complaints from graduate students last semester, Cornell has adjusted its policies for the spring. Graduate students can petition for coronavirus test exemptions — in a similar fashion as last semester — and ask faculty members to match teaching assistants with their preferred teaching modality. 

Graduate student Harish Chandrasekar, who is working remotely this semester, said he largely agreed that the University has improved student health policies for graduate students since the fall, but found that there were many hurdles with the test exemption process.

“What I heard is that it just has to go through a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of steps,” Chandrasekar said. “A lot of people suggested that it’s better to go and get tested rather than going through that.” 

At the start of the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Cornell Graduate Students United released a statement calling for the University to offer increased financial assistance and safety measures. CGSU’s demands garnered tremendous support in the spring, with over 1,000 people signing a petition in approval of the union’s appeals. 

As the spring semester begins, CGSU’s demands remain — but its proposals have not gone unnoticed by the Cornell administration. Kathryn Boor ’80, Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost of Graduate Education, said graduate students have provided feedback about the University’s policies. 

“The feedback we’ve received has been incredibly constructive and has allowed us to make adjustments in several key policies to reflect the needs of graduate and professional students,” Boor said in a statement to The Sun.

Graduate student Stephanie Tepper also said students require more resources and support than Cornell is currently offering. “I think Cornell Health isn’t really set up to address grad student mental health,” she said. 

While Tepper said she feels virus precautions may be slowly improving for graduate students, particularly with the addition of a testing site in the Commons, the University has yet to effectively address mental health. 

Seeking care two years ago, Tepper recalled being given a short-term therapy option — seven to eight sessions with a therapist, which she said “isn’t really even sufficient for undergrads.” 

“But for grad students, those of us who are looking for mental health resources are looking for things that are going to be longer term,” Tepper said, “which can be hard to find on our own in the Ithaca community.”

Ph.D. candidate Jeff Pea and Tepper agreed that increased summer funding for research and teaching assistantships could better support graduate students overwhelmed with financial hardship — and also improve their mental health. Tepper called for policies that extend to all campus departments and heightened communication among faculty and students. 

But funding comes from a variety of sources. Different fields incorporate funding independently, Boor wrote to The Sun. 

“I see summer funding as a huge issue that I think we need to keep pushing for, especially now when I think the financial burdens on lower-income students are huge,” Tepper said.

Correction, Feb. 24, 9:25 a.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that graduate students could not petition to be exempt from COVID surveillance testing.