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Bridging the Gap Between Students and Faculty

From happy hours to gender-neutral bathrooms to a new fellowship for outreach in diversity, equity, and inclusion, the graduate student advisory board for Caltech's Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) has been busy. Formed in 2018, the board provides graduate students with a way to enhance their experiences by making proposals to the division's leadership. Consisting of eight grad students, the board meets once a month for one hour with Nam Ung, director of student programming for PMA, and Mika Walton, the division's graduate affairs coordinator. Issues and ideas raised in this meeting are then brought to faculty in a meeting that takes place in the fall and spring terms.

We sat down with Ung and Sara Vanovac, a first-year grad student in PMA and member of the board, to hear more about what they have been working on.

Can you tell us more about the purpose of the board and its meetings?

Sara Vanovac:

The board serves as a way to directly communicate potential concerns with the division chair, executive officers, and option reps [executive officers are the equivalent of department chairs, while option reps are faculty members that advise students on academic programs, degree requirements, and other matters]. In our monthly meetings, we discuss various barriers and concerns brought forth by students and narrow down the list to a few important items to bring to the faculty. It's very easy to spend a lot of time complaining about what is not working. Taking action and implementing solutions are the hard part. For each problem that we bring to the faculty, we come up with proposed solutions, and during quarterly meetings, we present the plan of action and propose timelines for its implementation.

In December, we met with Fiona Harrison [Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the division], the division's option reps, and executive officers, and it was very empowering to know that as students we have a way to be heard and propose ideas that get implemented. They really came through on some of the things we asked for, which was a great sign.

Nam Ung:

We're trying to bridge the gap between students and faculty. The board is one of the ways to do this officially within the division. I think Fiona and the faculty are all very open to the proposals and suggestions. Not everything can be done, but I think the faculty make a really good effort. They are juggling many priorities, and they want to hear from the students.

How did you come to join the board, Sara?

SV: Nam had sent out an application to join the board, so I decided to apply. I remember very vividly furiously writing my essay inspired by a recent town hall, which reported results from the 2021 climate survey. At the town hall, Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux [MS '03; assistant vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion, and assessment] showed results from the survey that indicated female students felt excluded, especially in terms of graduate student advising. The most startling thing to me was that, in PMA, the men were much happier with their advisors. About 80 percent of them answered that they were very happy with their advisors—that's an even higher percentage than the average for the other divisions, which was about 70 percent. But only 38 percent of female PMA grad students had a good experience with their advisor. This, in addition to statistics shown during the sexual harassment training and stories shared by other female students, made me rather concerned.

I came from a liberal arts school and, though I was the only woman in a lot of my classes there, the environment wasn't as competitive, so I did not notice as many issues. But I notice differences here in the way that female and male students behave and are perceived; for example, the words used to describe female and male students are different. I was inspired to join the board because I wanted to have a positive impact, especially since, in many ways, I have loved my experience at Caltech so far. There is a lot that I appreciate about our community here, but I think that PMA can do better in terms of inclusivity.

One of the priorities we put forth on the board relates to this: We want to create a space for more welcoming and productive relationships between grad students and their advisors. This could involve workshops to make sure that people know how to advise appropriately.

What are some of the changes that have come out of the board so far?

NU: We are doing a lot this year that grew from conversations within the board last year or this year. For instance, we are hosting a new PMA grad bagel hour once a month, and quite a few students attend those, up to 40 or 50. It's the first Wednesday of every month just outside Bridge on our portico at 10 a.m. We also are hosting a grad PMA happy hour once a month, which is also highly attended, and faculty are invited to those once a quarter. It takes place the third Friday of the month on the portico at 5 p.m.

SV: I got great feedback about all the events from my friends who are first-year grad students. It can be hard when you first come to Caltech to meet other students, especially if you are not in a research group yet. It's amazing how high the attendance is. The goal is to create a sense of community and encourage people to get to know each other. Additionally, it can be nerve-racking for many of the first years to approach faculty members, so events like these are important, as they help us humanize each other and engage in conversation in a less formal setting. It is not hard to bring diversity to Caltech through admission, but making those same people feel included and integrated into the community is both more challenging and certainly more important.

NU: In addition to the social hours, we have a PMA grad mentorship program, where we pair up the first-year students with grad students who are farther along in their studies. Another idea that came straight from the board will take place this fall. It's a way for first-year grad students to learn more about the different research groups and for students to engage in research conversations with faculty. We are going to set up tables out the Bridge portico for the different groups, and this way first-year grad students can get to know more about potential advisors.

Finally, thanks to the advocacy efforts of previous boards, we are pleased to have our first fellowship for diversity, equity, inclusion, and outreach (DEIO). To receive the fellowship, applicants will submit a proposal that outlines DEIO work that they would plan to do. The fellowship will be awarded to a student in the spring term and will cover their stipend, tuition, and fees. Moving forward, the division will offer one or two of these fellowships per year. This is the one of the items students pushed for: They wanted to know how they could do diversity work and be supported in that endeavor. This fellowship is one of those ways.

And I hear the board is advocating for more gender-neutral bathrooms?

NU: Yes, that's another thing that came out of discussions with the board and Gender Minorities and Women in PMA (GWiPMA), a group open to undergrads, grad students, and anyone in PMA. PMA is constructing a gender-neutral bathroom on the second floor of East Bridge, and soon there's going to be another gender-neutral bathroom in the basement of West Bridge. We are currently putting a map together of all PMA gender-neutral restrooms that we can share with students and prospective students. We are also starting renovations for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant bathrooms this summer.

Are you working with other groups on campus?

NU: Yes. We work a lot with GWiPMA. Some members of that group are also members of the grad student advisory board. They bring up important topics to consider for our events. It is the division's hope that the grad student advisory board will also be intricately connected with the new PMA DEIO committee, the planning for which is under way now and will include students, postdocs, staff, and faculty. In fact, Sara and the board really advocated for this committee. We think by collaborating with other groups, the grad student advisory board will expand its reach and empower our students to communicate their ideas and propose what can be changed.

SV: The reason why we want to have all these groups is not only to respond to needs in our current environment but also to get ahead of the ever-changing culture. How do we serve our community better? There is always room for improvement. Community and culture are not static things. They are dynamic systems that emerge from the way we see and treat each other, and from the way we choose to see and treat each other.

Written by Whitney Clavin

Whitney Clavin
(626) 395-1944