Support group for graduate students

Photo by Jacinto Fernadez

GradChat is a new bimonthly discussion series for graduate students to talk openly about their experiences. Sang Yun Han, the Student Government Association (SGA) Vice President of Graduate Events, and Francisco Quinterocortes, primary SGA liaison to the GradChat program, sat down with the Technique to talk about the new program.

Unlike other discussion groups, the GradChat setting is totally informal. The idea for the group came about naturally as Quinterocortes and Han were considering what they and their peers could benefit from in their own lives. They took inspiration from Q Chats, the LGBTQIA student discussion groups hosted by the LGBTQIA Resource Center that allow students to talk through experiences related to their shared identities.

When the organizers shared their idea, they realized that the group would grow faster than anticipated. The demand for a peer-led, casual discussion group was very high, and the group quickly picked up momentum. They initially planned for the first event to occur next semester, but due to the amount of enthusiasm, GradChat began in February. The group was awarded $1,200 from the Institute to pay for catering.

To protect privacy, each group consists of no more than fifteen people, and the disclosed information is not to be repeated outside the group. Two graduate students act as peer facilitators to keep the topic on track, but they are also free to share their own experiences like any other member. Each meeting has a topic; the first meeting on Feb. 7 covered relationships with academic advisers, and the second meeting on Feb. 21 focused on impostor syndrome.

The group has been overwhelmed by the amount of interest. Due to the intimate, small group design, they were unable to accommodate the influx of students at the first meeting; they could not fit in the conference room they had reserved. In future to avoid this, the date and time will only be revealed to fifteen students. 

Many of the struggles that graduate students face are common across majors: low stipends, impostor syndrome and uncomfortable advisor relationships are shared experiences. To facilitate a sense of community, the students do not mention their major or lab when they introduce themselves. This way, students whose identity is so often consumed by their academic self can engage in a conversation that centers on their experiences instead of their academic speciality. However, Quinterocortes encourages other graduate students to start their own GradChats specific to their major; although they would not be as anonymous, the students could discuss issues particular to their subject area. 

Although students usually come to vent, Quinterocortes made it clear that the group is not trying to solve any problems. GradChat performs a very different function from counseling; unlike group therapy, the meetings are facilitated by students, not a counselor. GradChat is an informal setting for honest discussion.

The group works with the Counseling Center, which plans to occasionally send a trained counselor to audit the sessions and ensure that the dynamic is healthy and productive. In turn, the facilitators can turn to the center with any questions that they have on how to run a meeting the most effectively. 

Quinterocortes hopes to maintain bimonthly meetings and to increase the number of groups. Although the $1,200 stipend is too little to give each student a full dinner, the students who attended the first meeting said they would return whether or not free food was present. The feedback was positive, with many students feeling refreshed after the group was over. In its first month, GradChat has already begun to fill a void for many graduate students.