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Graduate studies administrators create their own online peer support group

Several dozen from across Canada have been meeting every Friday to help each other and their students navigate through the pandemic.

BY MOIRA MACDONALD | JUN 10 2020

There’s no question that graduate students, whose research and livelihoods have been hit hard by the pandemic, need support. But what about support for the people who help them?

Faced with a tsunami of issues and emergency situations he’d never seen before, Andrew Kim, director of graduate enrolment services at Memorial University, reached out to colleagues working in graduate studies across the country soon after the pandemic lockdown began. About a dozen of them met together virtually for the first time on a Friday afternoon in late March.

“We didn’t even know people’s names,” says Mr. Kim. What they did know was that they had questions and were eager to find out how others were handling them. They’ve met every Friday afternoon (or late morning for west coasters) since, building a cross-country network to support each other as professionals and as people. “These meetings make a big country feel small,” says Mr. Kim. Any graduate studies administrator interested in participating in the weekly meeting can email Mr. Kim at akim@mun.ca.

The earliest meetings focused on what people were doing to immediately support their students and put out fires, such as providing emergency bursaries, switching to remote service delivery, rapidly pivoting to online theses defences and, at a time when universities were in the middle of the fall admissions process, finding alternatives for international student applicants unable to do their English proficiency tests because assessment centres had shut down overseas.

“There were so many unknowns. Things were really escalating quickly,” says Jen Drennan, director of programs and operations in the college of graduate and postdoctoral studies at the University of Saskatchewan. But she left that first meeting feeling grateful.

“It was kind of a feeling of relief that, okay, this is not insurmountable,” she says. “We can work together. There are brilliant people across Canada who are working hard to come up with innovative solutions to some of these new challenges. It’s not something we have to do alone in our own bubbles.”

The list of interested attendees has grown to about 45 people with 10 to 20 usually joining the weekly hour-long discussion. Organizations such as the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and the Western Canadian Deans of Graduate Studies have helped to get the word out, but participation is open to any graduate administrator.

Meetings are round robin-style, with several questions set up for participants to answer as they go around the group. “How are you (as an individual) doing?” is always one of them, along with challenges each administrator is facing and solutions they may have to offer.

Deena Coburn, director of graduate and postdoctoral studies at Simon Fraser University, didn’t have any specific questions at first. Rather, she says she was “just looking for what other people were doing and sharing that we weren’t doing.” She calls the weekly meeting “a great way to connect with other universities,” to hear how others are supporting staff as well as students, and to vent their frustrations over things beyond their control.

One idea she shared was from someone in her department who was using a morning and late-afternoon walk as a way of creating psychological boundaries to home and work life – leaving home to “go to work” in the morning and vice versa in the afternoon. Another participant described how the University of Calgary had hired graduate students to help the shift to remote learning, an idea later adopted by other universities. A University of Toronto guide to help students navigate federal funding programs was distributed. Memorial had found a way to get funding to students who could no longer be in Canada by applying it through their student tuition accounts. Universities where online distance learning is a standard way of operating, such as Athabasca University, freely volunteered their knowledge too.

“Nobody’s preserving a competitive edge,” says Jill Mitchell Nielsen, manager of graduate programs for the University of Northern British Columbia who has assisted Mr. Kim with the virtual meetings. “You can just step right in and you know you’ve got a group of people that really want to help you.”

With the pandemic situation becoming somewhat normalized, the conversation has shifted towards preparing for the fall, including helping incoming graduate students, especially international ones, navigate the many individual contingencies caused by lockdown restrictions.

Sharing ideas among a group of diverse institutions and individuals, “helps us to find efficiencies in our decision-making so you don’t have hundreds of groups across Canada re-inventing the wheel,” says Ms. Drennan. “It can save us from a lot of mistakes.”

As with so many things pandemic, it’s possible that the grad administrators’ virtual meeting may become permanent because participants have recognized its value in their day-to-day work. “I feel more connected and more invigorated in the work that I do just hearing from different people about how much they care about grad students,” says Mr. Kim. “I’m happy to keep the lines open as long as people want to join.”

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