Jamie Heck, Chair, Advising Community on Graduate & Professional Students
Angie Cook, Member, Advising Community on Graduate & Professional Students
Initiatives focusing on diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness have been forefront at many institutions seeking to improve their accessibility and service for students. As educators have increasingly learned, student success extends well beyond representation and requires careful attention to institutional culture. Many higher education institutions offer graduate programs, but how diligently do these institutions pursue inclusive practices for their graduate students? How often do institutions offer services specifically designed with graduate students in mind? For example, as a way to reveal some of the underlying attitudes or approaches to graduate student support, consider institutions’ websites. In an institution’s mission and vision statements, are graduate students or graduate education mentioned? What services are listed specifically for graduate, professional, or adult students in university dining, student activities, housing, wellness, or tutoring? Does the institution provide career services for career changers, adults with significant work experience, or graduate student career fairs? What resources are available to students with children, caring for aging or ailing relatives or who provide the primary income for their families? At many institutions, graduate students represent a sizable student body with unique challenges and specific needs, but true efforts for inclusivity and connectedness would require increased, intentional consideration and planning.
When institutions strategize to positively impact the overall student experience, diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness feature prominently throughout these conversations and are factors that can influence engagement, belonging, and student success. As educators identify initiatives and develop associated programming, communication, and outreach, they must also ask the question: what role do higher education professionals have to fully embrace and purposefully create a culture in which diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness are pivotal components that positively impact the overall student experience, specifically as it relates to the graduate and professional student experience?
Although diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness can be discussed individually, inclusivity and connectedness are what propel diversity efforts to succeed and are the crucial elements to positively influence student success for diverse student populations (Fosslien & West Duffy, 2019). As mentioned by Fosslien and West Duffy (2019), “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard” (p. 185). Higher education professionals have a responsibility to serve as a voice and advocate for students to ensure that diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness are components of the institutional culture and their student experience.
In considering efforts and initiatives to support the overall graduate and professional student experience, it is imperative to reflect on opportunities for collaboration throughout campus to promote a culture characterized by inclusivity and connectedness. As described by Bleich, MacWilliams, and Schmidt (2015):
Inclusion extends beyond the notion of diversity. Inclusion activities create organizational structures that advance communications, foster advanced decision making, and mitigate power differentiation between and among diverse individuals and groups. Inclusion results in enriched perspectives and creativity central to the purpose of becoming educated in a pluralistic academic culture. (p. 89)
Far too often, university initiatives are established from an undergraduate-centric lens without consideration or mention of graduate students. Consider, for example, a campus-wide student survey on topics of mental health. The survey was distributed by paper through student activities offices, residence halls, and the student center. While effective in gathering undergraduate student perspectives, this design neglected the graduate students who are online learners, live off campus with their families, or who do not have time or interest in traditional undergraduate student activities. Attempting to implement a canned approach to supporting all students eliminates the individuality of varying student populations and dismisses the relevant support required to address the specific needs and experiences of respective student populations. As advocates for graduate and professional students, graduate educators have a responsibility to question, “What about graduate and professional students?” Educators must ensure that graduate and professional students are included in the conversation related to institutional strategic planning and associated initiatives.
Connectedness and creating a sense of belonging are pivotal in shaping the overall student experience. Connectedness is not a linear process but is instead comprised of varying impactful circumstances woven together (Jorgenson et al., 2018). This culminates in the creation of the overall student experience, and the entire campus community must contribute. “University employees can increase students’ level of connectedness through both formal and informal means. A holistic approach focused on student connectedness and satisfaction should incorporate the student perspective rather than relying predominantly on institutional conceptualizations of structure and outreach” (Jorgenson et al. 2018, p. 90). Departments and employees should not work in isolation to support the overall graduate and professional student experience. Efforts and initiatives to support the overall graduate and professional student experience warrant a similar level of collaboration, consciousness, and commitment that is administered to shape the undergraduate student experience.
As institutions create initiatives and resources to support graduate and professional students, it is essential to identify institutional barriers and challenges that exist in supporting them. This is especially important when considering assumptions or omissions that are made as it relates to the needs of graduate and professional students. Even though graduate students have already had a college experience, they may still need assistance in navigating campus offices, understanding policy, or following university deadlines. Graduate students may be deeper into their professional careers, but they can still benefit from career coaching designed for career changers, for advancing within their organizations, or for leveraging their graduate education in interviews and resumes. Graduate students often appear disengaged when compared to their undergraduate counterparts, but institutions can do more to fully understand the existing pressures and commitments graduate students encounter alongside their academics. Striving for true inclusion will require educators to dismantle their undergraduate-centric lens and give intentional thought to their graduate students’ needs and circumstances.
Institutions have an ethical obligation to offer the necessary support for graduate and professional students as is provided to undergraduate students to promote success and persistence. If institutions are committing to the concept of lifelong learning, then systems must be established to offer support after their undergraduate career has concluded. They must create an environment of inclusion for all students—undergraduate, graduate, and professional—when identifying programs, resources, and institutional priorities related to student success. While many institutions are welcoming increased diversity within their student profiles because of graduate enrollment, that increased diversity also warrants an examination of how they can best support graduate and professional students as they pursue their educational goals. Educators must create a framework and environment to support graduate and professional students with the same level of time, effort, and commitment provided to the educational journey of undergraduate students. To achieve the optimal level of support for all students, conversations and efforts associated with creating the framework of student support and fostering an environment that manifests diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness should involve members throughout the campus community. For institutions to establish a common voice and create a culture that promotes diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness for all students, it should be a campus-wide initiative and supported at all levels throughout the institution. If not already involved in conversations related to the overall student experience of the population advised, it is imperative that graduate educators become actively involved in these conversations. As Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm previously stated, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” (Carr, 2017).
Associate Director, Graduate Retention Services
College of Nursing Office of Student Affairs
University of Cincinnati
Director of Academic Affairs
College of Nursing Academic Affairs
University of Cincinnati
Bleich, M. R., MacWilliams, B. R., & Schmidt, B. J. (2015). Advancing diversity through inclusive excellence in nursing education. Journal of Professional Nursing, 31(2), 89–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.profnurs.2014.09.003
Carr, G. (2017, November 30). Unbought and unbossed, Shirley Chisholm stands as a timely lesson on claiming a seat at the table. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/unbought-and-unbossed-shirley-chisholm-stands-as-a_b_5a200c23e4b02edd56c6d71d
Fosslien, L., & West Duffy, M. (2019). No hard feelings: Emotions at work and how they help us succeed. Penguin UK.
Jorgenson, D., Farrell, L. C., Fudge, J., & Pritchard, A. (2018). College connectedness: The student perspective. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 18(1), 75–95. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v18i1.22371
Cite this article using APA style as: Heck, J., & Cook, A. (2020, December). Applying practices of diversity, inclusivity, and connectedness to graduate student experiences. Academic Advising Today, 43(4). [insert url here]