In the eyes of most Yale undergrads, graduate students unwillingly take on different monikers and attributes:
“My annoying TA”
“A major asset to our education.”
We have conceptions of graduate students already prepared in our heads, a mental picture shaped by discussion section horror stories, jokes about boning your teaching fellow and eyewitness accounts of Ph.D.s talking to themselves next to the Toad’s bar counter. But pinning down the actual nature of grad/undergrad relationships can lead to nebulous conclusions, and nothing speaks more to this fact than the starkly different viewpoints held on either side of the spectrum.
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This uncertainty should not strike us as surprising. Our graduate colleagues carry a workload of gargantuan proportions — a trip to the McDougal Center inside the Hall of Graduate Studies on any given afternoon can simultaneously infect you with a feeling of academic incompetence and communal pressure.
Whether it’s devouring every unintelligible line of Spenser poetry or putting up with confused undergrads in L1 Italian, graduate students carry a Herculean sense of commitment, and deathly stress levels. Grad school is like a convent for ridiculously insightful martyrs of academia. Instead of abstaining from sex and alcohol, they take refuge inside the HGS tower for five to six years and voilà: They come out as doctors of philosophy, scholars, professors, unemployment statistics, e-t-c.
The daily toils of the grad student remain a secret to members of the undergraduate population. The same can be said the other way around. What generates this mutual environment of acknowledged unawareness? When you hear top University administrators pledge over and over again that they are “committed to the undergraduate student experience,” a hypothesis begins to form. Despite constituting almost 55 percent of the overall Yale student body, the graduate population can sometimes feel a little overlooked.
“I don’t even notice them, unless one of them is my TA,” said Audrey Ballard ’13. “Grad students are not really a presence on campus.”
The classroom seems to represent the only constant overlap between undergraduates and students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).
These interactions fall under two main settings: Either graduate students enroll in undergraduate courses, or they head discussion sections for large lectures as teaching fellows (and for most of them, the latter is an actual job.)
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This shared experience rarely varies, but relationships can occasionally extend beyond office hours.
When Rachael Streeter GRD ’16, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Italian, first arrived at Yale to pursue a master’s degree, she remained relatively heedless of undergraduates for a while. Now, her contact with them happens casually. One of her roommates is dating a student in the college, and she has taken French classes and flamenco dance lessons with undergrads.
Extracurricular activities, in fact, can prove to be a convenient form of grad/undergrad bonding.
Anna Rose Gable ’13, a member of the Yale Slavic Chorus, attests that the grad students in her troupe add a “refreshing ” twist to the group dynamic. At football games, students from across the University join forces within the cheerleading squad to form a human pyramid.
But there is still room for improvements, Kevin Shanahan GRD ’11 said, and more steps can be taken to include graduate students in more sporting and cultural events. As a solution, he suggests advertising the biannual Extracurricular Bazaar to the graduate population.
Still, other aspects of the college are a little more difficult for graduate students get involved in.
Streeter and others interviewed acknowledge that they came to New Haven knowing full well that Yale was principally an undergraduate institution. As such, a strong sense of community pervades campus, and nothing declares “Yale camaraderie” more than the residential college system.
To bring the graduate students closer to home, Yale uses the Graduate and Professional Affiliate Program, which allows graduate students to integrate within residential college life. Yet it remains relatively unfamiliar to most undergraduates, in part because not all colleges participate in the program. This last detail does not sit well with Graduate Student Assembly President Paul Pearlman GRD ’11.
“Many of the masters do not value the affiliates and have chosen to reduce or abandon their programs,” he claims. In addition, he points to the fact that graduate students are not granted gate access to the residential colleges.
This is a common complaint among grad students — not only is it an inconvenience, but it can be particularly vexing on weekends, when the graduate dining halls are closed. Even though they are allowed to eat in the residential dining halls, graduate students cannot gain entry to a college without assistance.
“It makes us feel like miscreants,” says Mark Schwab ’09 GRD ’16, a candidate in the chemical engineering postgraduate program.
At the start of his Ph.D. program, Schwab approached the administrators in Calhoun College, his Yale home for four years, to request special permission for weekend gate access for dining. (A Hall of Graduate Studies resident may approach the master of one particular residential college for this privilege.)
After much bureaucratic delay, Schwab’s petition was granted, but he was shocked that it was not immediately accepted. Undergraduates never go through such troubles to eat at the HGS dining hall.
“[Undergraduates] can get into our buildings, but not the other way around,” Shanahan says. “It’s frustrating.”
The evident chasm between the college and the HGS tower can be traced to many factors within the social fabric of the University.
Graduate students propose simpler, more tangible reasons, from deficient advertising amongst the graduate population about events in the college, to the academic isolation that only an intense postdoctoral curriculum can trigger.
“Due to the fragmented nature in which Yale is run, there are few events that are really designed for the whole Yale community and those are poorly advertised,” Pearlman explained.
Still, other issues have proven more pervasive. Student causes akin to the lack of graduate student study spaces, or the Graduate Employees and Students Organization’s (GESO) efforts to be recognized as a Yale union, show that grad students already have enough on their plates without worrying about perfecting their relationship with the college.
But Yale officials’ delay to address these concerns shine a light on their approach to problems in other parts of the University.
“If these things were to inconvenience undergrads, the administrators would be all over it,” said Brian Tang ’12.
Pearlman worries about the general understanding among grad students, whether true or not, that they are less relevant than undergraduates for the administration. But most of them realize that primarily viewing Yale as an undergraduate institution is a valid perception. This small yet significant detail could color any attempt to close the divide that marks the grad/undergrad relationship.