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Meeting Students Where They Are: Engaging Graduate Students

When walking around campus on any given day of the week, it’s likely that an event or program is taking place to engage students. More than 30,000 students attend UT, with more than 6,000 of those students being graduate or professional students. More often than not, it is assumed that most of that programming is designed with undergraduate students in mind. 

Over the last year, Nneka Walson in the Center for Student Engagement (CSE) and her staff developed and hosted events that were specifically targeted to graduate and professional students. 

“We really wanted to meet [graduate] students where they are, we wanted to help them create a community of like-minded individuals who may be in the same phases of life,” said Walson. “This means hosting age-appropriate programs and learning opportunities.”

In total, CSE hosted 10 events specifically targeted to graduate and professional students, more than triple the number of events from last year. These events included grad nights at Fieldhouse Social and Main Event, discounted tickets to an Ice Bears hockey game, tickets to a Smokies Baseball game, axe throwing, and a ghost tour of the Old City around Halloween. More than 500 graduate students participated in these events, more than double the participation of last year. 

“I have always thought campus programs are a good resource for all students, but these unprecedented times of a global pandemic made me realize how important they are for our mental health. This semester CSE had numerous in-person and virtual events happening every day I could join at my convenience in between the graduate research to refresh my mind.” 

—Ph.D. student in biosystems engineering, ’22

When planning and thinking of programs and events, the CSE staff considered times and locations that would allow for graduate student attendance; this meant thinking of off-campus locations and events that were hosted later in the evening. It also meant thinking of events that allowed students to disconnect from their work and focus on something else. One student who attended a LEGO building night thanked Walson and her team for the opportunity to slow down and shift their focus to something creative. 

Walson continued, “We had to change our mindset to ‘Have we done everything in our power to make a difference?’ If we can make a difference in one person’s experience, I think that’s worth it.” 

In the future, Walson says she looks forward to expanding the partnership with the Graduate School, with the hope of hosting more events that build connection and community with graduate students. 

“The effort is there, the focus is there, and the support is there,” said Walson. “We might be slow to build, but our foundation is really strong. I would love to one day see just as many graduate student programs as undergraduate programs.”