Emily Liverman, Indiana University Bloomington
It is an accepted concept that student engagement and their sense of belonging to a campus or departmental community is a factor in student success, as measured by metrics like graduation rates, time-to-graduation, and satisfaction with the program. However, as Pontius and Harper (2006) point out, it is a concept that has been rigorously studied and implemented almost exclusively at the undergraduate level. Graduate students have not received the same emphasis on engagement and community during their college experience. Golde (2000) points out that for doctoral students, the academic department rather than the campus as a whole is the relevant community wherein engagement matters. Kern-Bowen and Gardner (2010) also note that engagement improves graduate student retention rates and future alumni relationships.
In 2013, the Russian and East European Institute (REEI) at Indiana University Bloomington (IU) took steps to intentionally create a sense of community and increase the opportunities for graduate student engagement. As an academic program, REEI offers a Master of Arts degree as well as undergraduate and PhD minors. The MA is a highly flexible and customizable interdisciplinary area studies degree and is offered alongside eight additional dual degree plans with professional schools. It attracts a wide variety of students: from those who are attending straight out of their undergraduate institution, to those who are returning to school with professional experience, to those who are being sent by their employer to obtain this specialized degree. The average incoming class is eight to ten students, so there is an average of 20–30 students on campus, actively taking classes, in any given semester.
The customizable degree plan includes only two, 3-credit hour classes that are required: an introductory Pro-Seminar (taken in a student’s first fall semester in the program) and a Capstone Colloquium (taken in a student’s final spring semester in the program). This means that even REEI students who enter the program together have a maximum of two guaranteed curricular touchpoints where they can connect with their peers, share research, and network with each other.
REEI has a number of students pursuing dual degree programs, which extend their time to degree and mean that these students take their Capstone Colloquium after the peers with whom they entered the program have graduated. Because of this, it is entirely possible that some students will not see the same REEI colleagues in more than one class during their career at IU. This reality can leave students feeling disconnected from REEI, from each other, and from REEI’s and IU’s resources. At the end of the Spring 2013 semester, a new student approached the director with these concerns on behalf of her incoming class. This lead to an evaluation of what REEI was doing and could be doing to engage students.
REEI already had a fulltime, professional academic advisor/assistant director for student services (AD) who handled student services, as well as academic and career advising. REEI also had several targeted listservs available for graduate students and would freely utilize them to advertise calls for papers, funding opportunities, events, and other items of interest. At that time, REEI had recently implemented a system to collect announcements relevant to Masters-level students and distribute them in a daily email called “REEI Daily Announcements.”
In direct response to the students’ concerns, REEI worked to implement and improve best practices, like encouraging student-faculty contact (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) and providing meaningful connections and orientations beyond the unit (Pontius & Harper, 2006) through a peer and faculty mentor system and a new event series. For the mentor systems, over the summer the AD paired incoming students with current students and faculty based on their respective disciplinary and geographic interests. The mentors would email or meet with the incoming student to introduce themselves and the unit. The peer mentors could speak to student-specific issues and answer questions candidly while the faculty mentors gave the faculty-perspectives on issues, as well as offering the incoming students an ‘automatic’ faculty friend. Both of these mentor relationships helped to support students and communicate expectations to them clearly, through a variety of means.
The expectation for mentors is that they will interact with the incoming students in their first semester at IU. Beyond that, it is up to the now-second-semester students to maintain the relationships or not. Even if the assigned faculty or peer mentor is not the best fit for a first-year student, this program grants first-year students the initial connection and permission to interact with more advanced students and with faculty as colleagues. This is a valuable step for graduate students as they begin their academic and professional careers.
The new event series is REEI Networks!, which has a target audience of area-studies Master-level students. REEI uses this series to give students several touchpoints during the semester where they can come together with their peers to relate academic, funding, and career opportunities. Each event features an informal networking and lunch/breakfast period followed by a presentation and finishes with an opportunity for questions and additional networking.
Since one of the areas of concern was that students felt disconnected from REEI’s and IU’s resources, REEI Networks! works to highlight these opportunities by inviting student speakers to share their experiences, calling on other units to present their offerings, and inviting alumni to speak about their time at IU and their career arc. Sessions have included summer opportunities and funding, an interview workshop with the Career Development Center, a funding workshop with the GradGrants Center, alumni speakers, and an MA essay preparation session.
Overall, REEI Networks! can be called a success, measured by the favorable evaluations that students have completed of the program, anecdotal evidence, and student connections made. Students share when a session has been particularly enjoyable or helpful: in the most recent Capstone Colloquium, students who had attended the “Crash Course: Prepping your MA Essay” session spoke at length about how helpful it had been. There are also examples of two students, who entered at different times and had no opportunity for course overlap, meeting at an event and making a new connection. By far, the events students are most likely to attend and report as being the most useful are ones where current students and alumni speak about their experiences at the university, in their career, and in the field.
The events that students are least likely to attend and report as being the least useful are ones without specific titles or where the information is too general. For example, one session was titled “Counseling and Psychological Services” and the presenter was going to speak about topics like adjusting to graduate school and imposter syndrome. No one showed up. This reflects that graduate students have to be utilitarian in their choice of activities due to the various claims on their time (Kern-Bowen & Gardner, 2010). They simply were not going to attend an event that was not explicitly useful to them. After working with the speaker to adjust naming and advertising, it was rebranded as “Starting the semester off right,” and attendance grew. Student feedback still reflected that this topic was not popular due to its perceived lack of connection to the area.
REEI’s small student population; dedicated staff members, including a fulltime academic advisor/assistant director for student services; actively affiliated faculty; and a rich set of campus resources are all contributing factors to REEI Networks!’s success at enhancing engagement and creating community amongst its graduate students. During the Spring 2015 semester, a larger percentage of students taking REEI’s capstone class successfully defended their MA essay and graduated on-time than had the previous two years. This correlates with the creation and use of REEI Networks! for engagement and community building and to the “Crash course: Prepping your MA essay” session.
As research points out, student engagement and retention rates, as well as positive alumni relationships, correlate (Kern-Bowen & Gardner, 2010). By offering graduate students multiple touchpoints and venues of connection, their rates of engagement, retention, and successful graduation are likely to increase (Manning, Kinzie, & Schuh, 2006). While REEI Networks! and the mentor program are still works-in-progress, aiming to adjust to student need, they are useful models for graduate student engagement and community building. Together, offering complementary strategies to keep graduate students both engaged and informed, they are examples of what units and departments can do to help support and involve their graduate students.
Academic Advisor/Assistant Director for Student Services
Russian and East European Institute
Indiana University Bloomington
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7). 3-7.
Golde, C. M. (2000). Should I stay or should I go? Student descriptions of the doctoral attrition process. The Review of Higher Education 23(2). 199-227. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/review_of_higher_education/v023/23.2golde.html
Kern-Bowen, J., & Gardner, R. (2010). Creating campus community for graduate students through programs, services, and facilities. The Bulletin, 78(2). Retrieved from https://www.acui.org/Publications/The_Bulletin/2010/2010-03/12132/
Manning, K., Kinzie, J., & Schuh, J. (2006). One size does not fit all. New York, NY: Routledge.
Pontius, J. L., & Harper, S. R. (2006). Principles for good practice in graduate and professional student engagement. New Directions for Student Services, 115, 47-58. Retrieved from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/cref/uploads/files/CRSEG%20026%20Pontius.Harper%20Graduate%20Engagement.pdf
Cite this article using APA style as: Liverman, E. (2016, June). Examining REEI networks: How REEI is creating community for its graduate students. Academic Advising Today, 39(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]