KALAMAZOO, Mich.—For many students pursuing advanced degrees, spring and summer are often times when their most intense research and writing occurs. The pandemic hasn’t changed that fact, but it has presented new educational challenges. Therefore, Western Michigan University’s Graduate College is offering additional and creative ways to assist students, which adhere to social distancing rules while maintaining the collaborative experience inherent with graduate school.
“Like many units on campus, we are doing more with less because we care,” says Dr. Christine Byrd-Jacobs, the college's interim dean. “Our staff quickly changed the way we delivered services to assist our students with the transition to distance education. Students may not be able to visit our office to drop off a form or ask a question, but this has not hindered our efforts to support our graduate students from a distance.”
As a top research institution, WMU prides itself in offering learning opportunities in a broad range of disciplines while catering to the academic interests of more than 4,000 graduate students.
Completing a thesis or dissertation, which typically involves months of research and writing that can total more than 100 pages, is no easy feat. A handful of papers from 2019 graduates illustrate the depth and breadth of subjects that were studied then: “Social Media Sentiment Analysis with a Deep Neural Network: An Enhanced Approach Using User Behavioral Information;” “Approximate Algorithms for Regulatory Motif Discovery in DNA;” “The Effects of Deforestation on Carbon Storage in Khabarovsk Krai, Russia;” and “Police-Community Collaboration in an Upper Midwest City.” Topics ranging from Mark Twain’s personal letters to food insecurity are ripe for research.
Research and writing can be solitary experiences, but WMU emphasizes collegial learning that, in turn, enhances projects. Students rely upon their professors, advisors and fellow students to provide feedback and encouragement while tackling some of the toughest academic challenges they’ve ever encountered. Likewise, Graduate College personnel are also a close team that continues to work well together despite today’s unprecedented and complicated challenges.
With this synergetic spirit in mind, adaptations have been made to ensure that a high level of collaborative learning continues even though participants can’t meet in person.
For example, the annual Graduate College Dissertation Writing Retreat, an intensive weeklong writing retreat offered to a dozen master’s and doctoral students from underrepresented backgrounds, was held online this year. Participants were able to receive individualized writing coaching and set retreat goals to measure their progress. Students blogged twice each day and developed short and longer writing goals to make their intricate projects easier to approach and finish.
Other activities meant to nurture the graduate community and promote motivation and accountability were revised for online approaches. Virtual weekly check-ins on Tuesdays via Microsoft Teams, which are voluntary, are offering master’s and doctoral students opportunities to report progress, pursue writing and research goals, gain inspiration and connect with fellow students.
Digital workshops on various platforms, such as Zoom and Webex, also are being offered on topics such as “A Quantum Leap Past COVID-19: Finding Joy in the Graduate Experience” and “Getting the Most out of Google Scholar."
To ensure graduate students can complete their programs while WMU is on limited operations status due to state directives, remote theses and dissertation defenses are being held on various platforms. The Graduate College’s webpage is offering tips on timing, video platforms and creating contingency plans for remote defenses.
While the requirement for a public portion of the final defenses has been suspended, many students are finding fulfillment in inviting friends and colleagues to their virtual presentation.
The Graduate College has been allowing extensions to thesis and dissertation submission deadlines to students impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Extras, such as creation of a graduation congratulatory video; offering a live chat feature on the website; celebrating Graduate Student Appreciation Week in April by offering well-being resources; and providing guidance on the credit or non-credit course option for the spring semester, have been created and implemented.
Also, all-University award winners were recognized with a video this year, which included the top Graduate Student Researcher, Creative Scholar and Graduate Teaching Effectiveness awardees.
Much of this work has been accomplished in the manner that Graduate College enrollment assistant Shari Rose of Galesburg, Michigan, has used for months now via her desktop computing setup at home, which still allows for collaborative resourcefulness with her colleagues.
“We are a staff that truly likes working together as a team,” says Paige Warner, Graduate College executive assistant. “We look forward to the time when we can return to our office and welcome students back to campus. Until then, we are here for you.”
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