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A Richer Experience

There are ways to break through the isolation of the graduate experience and promote cooperative efforts. Events and programs geared specifically to graduate students aim to help students develop closer ties to the Institute, make their time here richer, and prepare them better for life after MIT.

Colbert describes one such effort, TechLink, which has attracted scores of students, as “wildly successful.” Initiated three years ago by the Graduate Student Council and the Sloan Student Senate, TechLink brings together students from across the Institute each month for social and academic programs. The annual reception for women graduate students that Colbert started three years ago is another success story. This year, he says, “We had to turn out the lights and sweep out the place to get people to leave.”

Two years ago, Colbert and the Graduate Student Council collaborated on another new program, Graduate School 101, which provides first-year students with a series of seminars on a broad range of information about graduate school. So far, less than one-fifth of the population attends the seminars, but attendance is growing.

Colbert’s budget for this academic year includes $200,000 derived from student activities fees. For the fall, $40,000 of that budget has been allocated to new programs, and next spring more will be distributed to support additional proposals. A portion of the $200,000 will underwrite existing programs or activities, as well as events that originate elsewhere on campus or from Colbert’s office.

For this fall, a committee of students, faculty, and staff has selected nine student proposals for new activities, including a series of graduate student art receptions at the List Gallery, an expo where students can present their research in a conference-style venue, a series of community-building events in the physics department, and the overhaul of the Graduate Student Council Web site, a center where students can gather information about services and programs and share opinions.

Colbert is looking at the chemical engineering department and the Sloan School of Management, both known for having tight-knit graduate communities, to discover whether they use techniques that might be transported elsewhere in the Institute. For example, by installing a cappuccino machine in a central location, the chemical engineering department has sparked conversation between department faculty and students. Sloan faculty, on the other hand, have what Colbert calls a unique approach. “They’re about community building. They work as teams. There’s something to be learned from them about how to get graduate students to bond.”

Even outside Sloan, students are starting to instigate that kind of bonding. Teams of graduate students are working together to create and run social and academic programs in every graduate residence hall on campus. Christina Silcox, a doctoral student in health sciences and technology, was president of the Warehouse, a graduate residence, when it first opened in 2001. She says community building was a spontaneous benefit of having created a homey atmosphere for the 100 residents. But at Sidney and Pacific, the 750-bed residence hall that opened this fall, the process was more formal. Silcox, now serving as secretary of the house council and a member of the executive council there, says that because the residence is so large, a 50-member leadership group had to be formed. That group designed a governance structure aimed at encouraging a sense of community at the hall, wing, and residence hall levels. And, at the expense of forfeiting housing for additional residents, students requested lounges and other public spaces throughout the building to encourage socializing and to accommodate small dinner parties and other functions.

On-campus residents may benefit from these programs, but more than half of all graduate students live off campus. “You can see how on-campus residents have a great time,” says Megan Hepler ‘99, a doctoral student in health sciences and technology. “I never hear that from anyone off campus. This neglect of off-campus folks is a vicious cycle. They’re neglected, and so they think they’re not important, so they don’t want to give back when they graduate. We need to break that cycle. Show them MIT cares, and they’ll care about MIT.”

Up until now, off-campus students have had little representation in quality-of-life issues at the Institute, but the Graduate Student Council is working to revive an off-campus student organization and include representation on the council. And at least one of the fall proposals funded by Colbert’s office was specifically aimed at students who live in MIT-owned apartment buildings off campus. “The most important thing for off-campus students is to let them build their own community,” says Alisa Morss, a doctoral student in health sciences and technology, who was on the committee that reviewed students’ proposals for building graduate community. “It’s important to support them and to make life easier for them financially, whether it’s for subsidized events like the Boston Pops or Red Sox games or for transportation to campus.”

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