I. Who Are We?
The Graduate School is the home for graduate education at the University of Connecticut. Our office includes the leadership team, the Admissions team, and The Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA) team. Graduate students, faculty, and staff are often surprised to learn about the variety of work we do.
The Graduate School provides vital services that support the graduate student, faculty, and staff community. The leadership team provides vision for graduate education at UConn and advocates for the interests of the graduate community. The Admissions team supports prospective students and graduate departments with the admissions process, processing thousands of applications and managing the matriculation process for all incoming graduate students. The Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA) team supports graduate education by developing engaged communities across multiple disciplines at the University of Connecticut. GSPA helps graduate students and postdoctoral scholars achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals during their time at the University of Connecticut. More specifically, the GSPA team:
- Develops and promotes programs to enrich academic journeys and creates experiences for personal and professional growth.
- Provides guidance to navigate various opportunities and challenges through administrative services and consultations.
- Collaborates across UConn departments and offices to enhance the infrastructure that supports graduate education
Who we are affects how we approach equity work, and as such, we want to share the identities we hold. Our team is almost entirely white, which is a reflection of The Graduate School staff as a whole. We all have graduate education experience, some of us having completed masters programs and some of us having completed doctoral programs. Most of the group are part of our GSPA team with the exception of Kent Holsinger, the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School, and Marie LeBlanc, Communications and Digital Strategy. As such our team mostly has training and experience in student affairs with multiple members of our team having experience as faculty. Multiple members of our team are UConn alumni.
Following multiple national incidents of racism and violence toward the Black community in the United States, The Graduate School wrote a statement expressing support and solidarity for our Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC) graduate students in addition to promising action. Although our intentions were positive, we asked Black graduate students to share their stories and insight; the impact of that request further burdened a population who often has to relive and retell racial traumas. Since realizing the mistake and recognizing the burden we placed on BIPOC graduate students, The Graduate School has been reflecting, researching, and discussing how we can better serve our BIPOC graduate students without overburdening them.
After a conversation with the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, we decided to move forward by working with our partners (who were either compensated by the nature of their employment by the University or had volunteered to serve in an advocacy role for graduate students through their involvement with their organization) and getting their input on two key questions:
- What practices, policies, and processes most negatively affect BIPOC graduate students at the University of Connecticut?
- What practices, policies, and processes are best addressed by The Graduate School?
With this aim in mind, we have spoken or met with campus partners including Graduate Student Senate, the Graduate Employee Union, the Cultural Centers, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Institutional Equity, and the Ombuds Office this summer. We also reached out to our Graduate Fellows and to the Graduate Students of Color Association. This outreach generally looked like one to two emails sent to partners and follow up if interest was expressed.
The Graduate School believes that racism is an urgent issue in our society and in our institution; as such we focused our work upon how to improve the lives of BIPOC students at UConn. While our focus is on Black, Indigenous, and/or other Persons of Color graduate students, we believe that many of the issues of oppression we look at in our report also negatively affect graduate students who hold other marginalized identities. As The Graduate School, we can see how students with disabilities may similarly be given less mentoring opportunities or lack representation in graduate education; we witness how international students can be not only ridiculed and ostracized due to stereotypes about non-Native English speakers but can also have their labor abused by their advisor due to their precarious visa status; we see how LGBTQIA+ students can feel isolated and unsafe in the programs.
Additionally these marginalized identities have overlap. When we talk about BIPOC students, we are not only talking about BIPOC students who hold otherwise dominant identities; we are talking about BIPOC women, BIPOC queer people, BIPOC trans* people, BIPOC international students, and more. Furthermore, when we are talking about BIPOC individuals who hold another marginalized identity, we have to consider intersectionality as Kimberle Crenshaw defined the concept. We have to acknowledge that holding multiple intersecting identities is not additive in terms of the experiences of oppression but is its own unique, compounded experience of oppression in our society.
As we look to change our systems and practices in graduate education to better serve BIPOC students, we hope and believe that these changes will in fact allow us to better serve all graduate students. Trans* scholar Dr. Z Nicolazzo suggests in her “trickle up” approach that by seeking to serve the most marginalized communities (Black, queer, trans* women), we make changes that serve all individuals, including individuals who are not marginalized. Similar to trickle up, a tennant of universal design is that we design environments so that all members of a community regardless of ability, size, identity can access the environment, and by creating spaces that can be accessed by people with disabilities, we can even improve the space for people without disabilities. The Graduate School believes that by seeking to improve the lives of BIPOC students, we are improving the graduate community for all students.
IV. Departmental Partners Themes
After speaking to our campus partners, the overarching theme that emerged involved advising and mentoring. Staff and partners repeatedly pointed out ways in which BIPOC graduate students lacked the same mentoring and advising resources to which white peers had access. Additionally BIPOC graduate students suffered disproportionate negative impacts from deficient advising.
- Holding discriminators accountable: Our partners and students repeatedly expressed a lack of faith in the systems in place to address discrimination and racist behavior. Advisor power creates a barrier to graduate students reporting this kind of behavior in the first place. Added to the sense that the University’s processes fail to hold these bad actors accountable creates a further disincentive to reporting these behaviors.
- Diffusing advisor power: The advisor-advisee relationship is a large part of a student’s graduate experience. For those who have positive advising relationships, the close relationship can be a strength. However, for those who have a difficult advising relationship or for BIPOC students who suffer an advising relationship marred by racist behaviors, the single advisor model has a tremendous capacity for harm because advisors have considerable power over their advisees both during their graduate experience and as they enter the field.
- Lack of BIPOC mentorship and community: UConn is a predominantly white institution, and the predominance is more pronounced among faculty and staff. BIPOC graduate students generally do not have the same opportunities for mentorship, especially from advisors who share their racial identity. Additionally BIPOC faculty and staff who could mentor BIPOC graduate students are often overburdened and undercompensated for this work.
- Insufficient training in anti-racism and advising: In addition to a few community members who do malicious harm, there are many who cause harm unintentionally. While training alone is insufficient, training coupled with other strategies could promote better, more inclusive advising and improve the experience of BIPOC graduate students at UConn.
In September 2020, The Graduate School distributed a survey to departments on the subject of BIPOC graduate student support. The survey was intended to gauge the opinions of those faculty and administrators most deeply involved in graduate education: department heads, Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), program coordinators, and department administrators and the Graduate Faculty Council. We received 62 responses to the survey. The survey asked for the following information.
- Are you staff or faculty?
- Do you serve as a major advisor to a graduate student/s?
- What supports would you refer BIPOC graduate students to if they were experiencing racism at UConn?
- What could The Graduate School provide departments so they could best support BIPOC graduate students?
- What practices, policies, and processes do you feel most negatively impact BIPOC graduate students at UConn?
- What practices, policies, and processes do you feel would be best addressed by The Graduate School (as opposed to other departments or offices within UConn)?
We additionally asked the respondents complete a Likert scale rating their agreement to the statement “___________ negatively impacts BIPOC graduate students at UConn” with the following themes we had previously identified:
- Advisor power in advisor-advisee relationship
- Minimal accountability when discrimination is reported
- Lack of mentoring
- Lack of community or feelings of isolation
- Lack of financial resources
- Lack of support or acknowledgement following national/local incidents of racial injustice
- Racial battle fatigue
Additionally faculty and staff who completed the survey were offered the opportunity to have a follow up discussion with Graduate School staff, which required faculty and staff to share their name and contact information. 32 individuals chose to do so.