Student-Faculty Colloquium Seeks to Improve Diversity, Climate at Caltech (+)

The Graduate Student Council recently hosted a forum designed to bring graduate students, faculty, and the administration together to discuss important campus issues. The Student-Faculty Colloquium (SFC) featured a keynote address by Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, followed by presentations on campus culture, mentoring, diversity, and work-life balance.

The forum, held February 11, included four sessions, each led by two graduate student cochairs and at least one faculty cochair. “The overwhelming enthusiasm and support of everyone we talk to—the faculty, the administration—speaks volumes to how important people at Caltech think these issues are,” says SFC organizer Allison Strom, a grad student.

“What I’m most proud of is that the graduate students have involved faculty in the panels and discussions. They’ve made it a joint effort. It’s not just the graduate students talking to the faculty; it’s a dialogue,” says Felicia Hunt, GSC advisor, assistant vice president for equity, accessibility, and inclusion initiatives, and Title IX coordinator. “We don’t have a class on planning a conference. To be able to pick it up and run with it takes an incredible amount of initiative.”

All sessions centered on discussions for the “sharing of ideas across departments, which goes with Caltech’s identity as a collaborative institution,” says grad student Natalie Higgins, cochair of the session “Supporting Students through Mentoring Networks.”

Grad student Emily Blythe, cochair of the session “Admissions and Recruitment,” agrees. “We see the SFC as a really good way to get everyone from different options in a room together. Certainly, options are doing great things the others don’t know about.”

Students in different departments may also be facing similar problems, as “many of the issues graduate students face transcend departments,” says Strom. “The challenges of being a scientist or engineer are pretty universal.”

The SFC aims to address these matters by facilitating conversation and opening lines of communication among students and faculty “to create a network of people you can talk to for advice,” says Higgins.

The main goals of the discussion in the mentoring networks session include making students and faculty aware of the issues that grad students face and of available resources for dealing with these issues, and attempting to fill any gaps in this system. The session will also provide information about “nonresearch mentoring—mentoring for other aspects of life,” says grad student Henry Ngo, Higgins’s cochair. “We’re not just researchers; there are different worlds we need to seek out.”

Similarly, Blythe hopes “to get a sort of best practices guide out of this to make sure everyone feels welcome at Caltech.”

The admissions and recruitment session, says grad student Sofia Quinodoz, Blythe’s cochair, offered a good opportunity to discuss “how each option can recruit the best people.” She said  grad students sharing their experiences with professors could “show them how they can help with recruitment” by letting them know what has and has not worked at Caltech.

The session “Professional and Career Development,” cochaired by grad students Parham Noorzad and Andrew Robbins, addressed the development of skills necessary for navigating graduate school and future work and the preparation required to navigate the job market. These discussions were important, especially for grad students, since “just finishing your thesis is not enough to get a job; you need presentation and interview skills,” says Noorzad.

Faculty at the professional and career development session offered “perspective on preparing students for different careers and to share their experiences with students, whether they have gone on to industry or academia,” says Robbins.

One challenge of the GSC was “getting people who aren’t interested in being student leaders involved in conversations,” says Strom. “They don’t have to be involved in student government to have their voices heard, so the SFC hopefully provided them with an opportunity to do that.”

Grad students Gina Duggan and Alicia Lanz organizinged a panel of students and faculty for the session “Advisor-Advisee Relationships” to address concerns identified from the Graduate Exit Survey and to answer questions about advisor/advisee styles, methods of communication, and expectations. “As graduate dean,” says Doug Rees, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry and dean of graduate studies, “one thing I’ve learned is that each lab and option has its own ways of doing things. We won’t find just one solution, but we’ll find what the basic elements are for a happy and productive relationship.”

“I was excited to hear what members of the faculty think about these issues,” says Duggan, one of the student panelists. “They’ve all been grad students also.”

Engaging students and faculty in this discussion was one of the main points of the SFC. “Now is a good time for departments; they seem more receptive and open to change,” says Lanz, the panel moderator.

Strom says the day was designed “to give students the confidence to be able to advocate for themselves. With more information, they can be more confident with their identities as scientists and people and figure out what they want to do in the future.”

For more about graduate student life, see our Winter 2015 article “Seeking a Balanced Equation.” 

Written by Nehaly Shah