The Office of Graduate Studies strongly believes that a graduate student population diverse in its origins, beliefs, lifestyles, experiences, and intellectual perspectives greatly enriches the scholarly, cultural, and social activities of the University. In particular, we are committed to enhancing the presence and mentoring of students from historically underrepresented or marginalized populations with the knowledge that these improvements will make the University a more democratic community and benefit the entire graduate student body.
The purpose of this section is to increase your awareness of the factors that shape how a student faces the challenges of pursuing an advanced degree. No two students experience advanced study in exactly the same way. Even students with similar backgrounds and personal characteristics can experience very different challenges. Conversely, some graduate students of very different backgrounds share similar concerns, such as presenting or publishing papers and job searching.
Thus, rather than assume that students are members of discrete groups, we have chosen to discuss gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, race and ethnicity, disabilities, age, prior work experience and career aspirations, family responsibilities, and socioeconomic background as important factors that influence (but do not determine) the graduate experience. To be empowered, students should reflect on how these factors shape their particular circumstances as a graduate student. Recommendations provided here are general enough to apply no matter what your discipline, although we attempt to draw disciplinary distinctions where pertinent.
Older students can be more focused and aware of their goals for graduate school than their younger colleagues. Their maturity is an especially strong asset for graduate study because their life experiences make them familiar with complex problems and independent thinking. Even with this important advantage, older students sometimes face challenges that are less common among younger students.
Older students, especially if they have been in the workforce for several years, might worry about how they compare academically to their younger counterparts, who might be more up-to-date in the discipline or possess more experience with recent educational computing technologies.
Many older students pursue graduate school after spending a number of years running a business, leading developments in industry or the public sector, or raising a family. A difficult issue they sometimes face is learning that their hard-won, "real life" knowledge is devalued during the graduate experience. This is particularly frustrating when older students' experiences contradict the research or theory they are studying.
Older students commonly describe feeling excluded when a professor refers to an event or popular film from many years ago and then says to the entire class, "And, of course, none of you would remember that." Although not intended to be harmful, this kind of remark makes older students feel overlooked.
Because of the age differences between them and their peers, older graduate students can sometimes feel socially isolated. Many prefer to socialize in environments different from those of younger students. Also, although they do develop friendships with younger colleagues, older students are aware that some of them may be the same age as their own children.
Some students are close in age or even older than their professors, and may worry that their professors are more accustomed to interacting with younger students.
Regardless of their reasons for pursuing advanced studies, students enter graduate school today with more experience and more diverse career aspirations than ever before. For many, it is common to have had one or more career-track jobs before beginning advanced study.
Often such prior work experience sparks a person's decision to pursue a graduate degree, whether it is for love of the discipline, advancement in a current profession, entrance into a new profession, or a combination of these reasons. Thus, if real world perspectives or examples are not valued in the graduate experience, students with prior work experience can feel especially disappointed. Many graduate students want to feel valued for their prior work accomplishments, especially if those experiences were as teachers or practitioners in a field that they are now researching.
Students with disabilities have differing needs and concerns, depending on their type of disability. Disabilities vary greatly; some are visible while others are not. Some students experience physical disabilities, learning disabilities (such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia), chronic disabilities (such as lupus and multiple sclerosis), and psychological disabilities (such as depression and bipolar disorder). Students' needs vary depending on whether they have had a disability since birth or whether it developed later in life.
Given such a wide variety of disabilities, it is important that students work collaboratively with their professors and with the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to ensure that their needs are met. The SSD office is charged with establishing eligibility for disability-related services, such as academic adjustments and auxiliary aids for qualified students with disabilities, and can help students and faculty determine effective ways to meet disability-related needs in courses or programs.
Be aware of the following factors that can influence mentoring needs.
Some students with disabilities fear appearing or becoming too dependent if they ask for help. Those whose disabilities are of recent onset or are "invisible" may be unaccustomed to asking for help or may fear being stigmatized as less capable due to the accommodations needed.
For many students with disabilities, meeting basic requirements demands more time and energy than it does for other students. A student with multiple sclerosis, for instance, may only have a certain number of hours in the day for school and studying before fatigue, vision problems, and cognitive deficits flare up. A student who is hard of hearing and uses a real-time captioner (like a court stenographer) may have to review several pages of notes from the captioner in order to create suitable study materials. This process requires additional preparation and study time. Some students find it challenging to participate in certain professional activities as much as they would like to (such as submitting papers for conferences) because they need to devote all their time and energy to meeting the demands of their programs.
Changes in reading assignments can be very difficult for students who are blind or visually impaired or have a learning disability in reading. As much as six weeks prior to the beginning of the semester, these students may submit requests to the Services for Students with Disabilities Office to render course reading materials in alternate formats. If any readings are added at a later date, it may take up to two weeks for students to get these new materials translated into accessible formats. It may not be feasible to meet reading deadlines if the conversion process cannot occur quickly enough.
Classroom relocations also may cause hardships for visually impaired students or students with mobility limitations, such as students in wheelchairs or with conditions that impact walking distance. (Note: People with disabilities prefer not to use language such as "physically challenged.")
As the graduate student population increases in age, so do family responsibilities, such as raising children (whether with a partner or single) or becoming the primary caregiver for elderly parents or relatives. Graduate students who have children or parents who depend on them for support may find that the structure of graduate education in a large research university still presumes an ability to be on campus at any time, which can conflict with other responsibilities.
Students with family responsibilities often are highly organized and intensely focused during the blocks of time they carve out for their graduate work. Unfortunately, students may fear that their professors might misconstrue their attention to other responsibilities as a lack of commitment to scholarship. Emergencies, such as an ill child or parent, occasionally prevent them from attending a class or a meeting and can exacerbate that misperception. Even after a child enters school, childcare demands do not lessen. Other demands arise, such as picking up or dropping off children and attending school functions.
Students with family responsibilities might find it difficult to attend some social, academic, and professional functions. As a result, they may begin to feel isolated from their cohorts and departments, missing out on the "academic business" that takes place in those functions.
Students with family responsibilities often need to be home in the evenings to tend to those in their care. For this reason, study group assignments or research projects that require meeting in the evening can present difficulties, as can evening lectures.
Cultural beliefs influence the ways graduate students deal with family responsibilities. During the mourning for a family member, for example, some students may be expected to spend a considerable amount of time consoling relatives at home. You can ask your mentor to help explain to other faculty the need for participating in family activities different from mainstream practices. On another note, some students enter graduate school without the full support of their families, who might question how graduate study is beneficial to the entire family, particularly if it has been experiencing economic hardships. Your mentors can help all their students communicate how a graduate degree can bring long-term benefits to them and their families.
Women are as ambitious as men in pursuing success in graduate school. Women and men demonstrate their ambition in their day-to-day persistence, interest, and intellectual contributions, which are changing the face of graduate education. Even though the graduate community is more enlightened than ever about the benefits of having both sexes well represented in teaching and research, it is still working to transform the traditionally male-centered structure of advanced study.
When sexism and other unconscious biases surface, women graduate students may experience the negative effects more pointedly, although men also report negative effects. For this reason, while students share many concerns about academic interactions, women express some concerns that differ from those of men.
The unspoken code in graduate education is that, aside from being intelligent, students who are assertive in classroom discussions or conference presentations attain success. However, students from marginalized groups often demonstrate a different approach to academic interactions. Many women and racial minorities, and even international students, express concern about difficulties they experience making their contributions heard. For example, in classroom discussions, women have noted that to contribute an idea, often they have to interrupt another student. They tend to interpret interruptions as rude and disrespectful, yet fear that professors and peers will wrongly attribute lack of participation to having no ideas at all. Many women report that when they do assert their ideas strongly, they feel subjected to criticism in ways their male counterparts are not — even though the assertive behavior is the same.
Research has shown that an overly competitive and critical atmosphere in graduate programs can alienate minority students, and that women, in particular, feel such alienation more intensely. There is no doubt that women are capable of providing insightful criticisms of others' work when warranted. But some interpret critical behavior as an attempt to appear intellectually superior, and thus as a form of insecurity. Women, and indeed a growing number of students in general, lament that the system does not reward one for praising the contributions of other scholars. More opportunities for collaborative work would help balance the competitive culture of graduate school.
Many students desire to receive frequent constructive feedback on their work. Although lack of feedback is problematic in its own right, the lack of constructive feedback can lead students to doubt their capabilities. Women tend to attribute negative experiences in graduate school to personal deficiencies, whereas men tend to attribute them to insufficient guidance or problems within the department. Regarding their mentor's personal style, men are more content than women with mentors who may be impersonal but offer solid instrumental advice. Women may interpret a professor's distance as an indication that he or she has a negative opinion of them. Studies suggest that these nuances hold true for racial minorities as well.
International students who attend graduate school in the United States recognize the many advantages of our graduate education system and arrive with appreciation and energy to accomplish great things with their faculty and peers. At the same time, these students experience significant challenges that go beyond adjusting to living, learning, and working in a foreign language, and vary depending on the background of the student — whether he or she is new to graduate study in the United States or has experience in this system.
Students and mentors alike will benefit from understanding that no matter where a student is from, there are cultural, educational, and social norms to be learned in graduate school.
Despite their abilities and accomplishments, international students can feel less competent in the early stages of their programs. Lack of linguistic proficiency or lack of knowledge about the U.S. academic system can be hurdles to overcome in the initial stages of a research or teaching assignment. Most international students have experienced very different classroom communication patterns. For example, in the educational systems of East and Southeast Asia students are passive in interactions with professors, whose authority goes unquestioned. International students can be taken aback when U.S. students speak up without being called upon or challenging their professors' views.
Interaction in graduate seminars can seem unnecessarily competitive to international students, who fear that if they do not exhibit these same behaviors, professors will judge them as less capable or less intelligent. Finally, many international graduate students come from countries in which only a small number of high school graduates are admitted to university, so the different level of preparation of first-year undergraduates in the United States can be a new challenge for international teaching assistants.
When international graduate students arrive on campus, they need to demystify three cultures: the U.S. culture, the culture of the university, and the academic culture in their departments. They discover that policies in graduate departments can be quite different from those in their home institutions, or are opaque or difficult to interpret. For instance, some may find it hard initially to understand why they can accept teaching or research assistantship "work" but are not permitted to work off-campus. On a subtler note, international graduate students might rely on different assumptions about how faculty members and graduate students should relate to each other. Many East Asian graduate students, for example, have reported sensing a kind of interpersonal "coldness" from some U.S. faculty who, while informal and jovial with students during seminars, remain distant regarding students' personal or family lives. In other countries, the faculty-graduate student relationship often extends beyond academic discussions and may include various types of non-academic interactions with students and their families.
In moving far away from families and friends, many international students can feel a great sense of displacement. Those who are new to this country and who bring their partners and children with them worry about how well they or their families will adjust to life in the United States. Even for students from countries with a large number of fellow nationals studying at UNL, uncertainties about how to socialize with Americans can raise stress levels. After a while, some students may begin to wonder about how they will be accepted at home when they return with different dress, talk, and behavior. In essence, they worry about becoming foreigners in their own countries.
Race and ethnicity are important factors that shape the academic, social, and professional experiences on campus of faculty and graduate students alike. Although the racial and ethnic diversity of the UNL graduate student population has been increasing over the last 20 years, the campus community as a whole remains relatively homogenous.
One reason is that efforts to enhance the pipeline of students at primary and secondary levels preparing for higher education have been well-meaning, but sporadic and limited. Another reason is that disciplinary programs are still learning how to expand their student recruitment and outreach efforts. Thus, ethnic minority graduate students at UNL can feel marginalized, not only in the student population but in how research problems and curricula reflect, or fail to reflect, their scholarly influence and experiences.
We need more role models of faculty and students who engage in multicultural scholarship, research, and teaching so as to make diversity awareness and support structures in graduate training more explicit.
When students enter a large and complex research university, they can experience feelings of isolation or become overwhelmed. One of the first things students do is seek out people with whom they can identify in order to temper those feelings. This search can be especially challenging for students of color because the dearth of minority faculty, and of white faculty who resonate with their academic and sociocultural experiences, makes it difficult to find role models in their fields. It is not the case that ethnic minorities only want other ethnic minorities as professors and mentors. Rather, they seek to find affinity with role models who have "paved the way," who actively work through the dissonances between their home communities and the academic community, and who can help students do the same. Mentors help students see pathways to their own futures more clearly. When one of the few faculty of color leaves UNL for another university, minority students can feel the impact — it often means losing a potential supporter of their work.
Stereotypes still exist on campus and there is a great need to eliminate unexamined assumptions. Stereotypes are particularly burdensome to graduate students of color, not least because many have worked hard to overcome significant barriers to get to graduate school. A stereotype they worry about is whether other graduate students and faculty will have low expectations of them. This stereotype makes minority students feel awkward when seeking advice and guidance. Another harmful stereotype is that "all ethnic minorities are alike" or have the same goals for graduate school and thus experience the same challenges. This lumping together of outlooks or abilities creates an environment that compromises collegial interaction and undermines students' individual needs and talents.
At least two kinds of support are necessary for students, and students of color in particular, to succeed. The first is sufficient financial support and the other is environmental support, including mentoring and networking. It is dangerous for departments to assume that students automatically "know" how to navigate the system or pursue support in such areas as grant writing, locating assistantships, and establishing networks with potential mentors. Marginalized students may have fewer direct channels to such sources. Students in a number of programs have found ways to form groups to address these issues.
Underrepresented students on fellowships often are inadvertently overlooked for teaching and research assistantships. As a result, they experience fewer opportunities for collegial, career-building interactions with faculty and peers who may be student instructors or research assistants. They also miss out on how such teaching and research assignments can enhance graduate training and strengthen their curricula vitae.
Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students are members of our community. Unlike other underrepresented students, many GLBT students are "invisible" because sexual orientation and gender identity are not always determined through physical expression, or because some students choose not to be out. Some students do talk about their sexual orientation or gender identity openly. Mentors have the responsibility, regardless of their own sexual orientations, to maximize learning and professional opportunities for all their protégés. You can help your academic community eliminate, or be more aware, of the following:
Even within a fairly accepting climate such as ours, GLBT students can still encounter homophobia around campus. Behaviors can range from the blatantly offensive, such as verbal or physical threats or attacks, to the less obvious, such as the casual remark "that is so gay" in classroom or hallway conversations.
Many graduate students and professors discuss topics with the unconscious assumption that everyone is heterosexual. Even some straight faculty and students who have a heightened awareness of gender issues might still talk about the world from a heterosexual perspective. GLBT students experience such scholarly discussions as biased, and the absence of GLBT perspectives can make them feel isolated from opportunities for intellectual engagement.
Similarly, many people on campus assume that all individuals identify fully with the gender in which they were raised. Genderism is the assumption that male and female assignments of gender are fixed at birth. This is not the case for every person. Gender biases in classrooms and departments (e.g., saying "it" to refer to individuals of ambiguous gender; gendered bathrooms) are oppressive to individuals who feel the need to alter their gender identity.
Being out as a GLBT student is not a one-time event, but a decision experienced in each new social situation. Each new interaction comes with the burden of having to assess the personal, social, and political ramifications of disclosure. Heterosexual students do not bear this weight when interacting with peers and professors.
Students come to graduate school from a variety of socioeconomic trajectories, determined either by their parents' educational and occupational circumstances or by their own occupational histories. Some students delay higher education in order to earn and save money, gain professional experience, or support their families. Socioeconomic background is a largely "invisible" but important factor that influences students' mentoring needs. Rural or inner-city origins; growing up in a blue-collar family; being raised by a single, struggling parent or in a very large family; low family income; and family unemployment are all factors that can put students at an educational disadvantage.
Quite often, graduate students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first in their family to complete an undergraduate degree. The fortitude these students develop to perseverance and pursue their academic ambitions is a highly desirable quality for success in graduate school. The effects of a disadvantaged background do not stop, however, just because a student has entered graduate school. Students who experienced hardships earlier in life need mentoring that is attentive to their concerns.
Students from working-class backgrounds often cannot turn to family members for monetary support throughout graduate school. What is more, some students carry responsibilities for financially or physically supporting their parents, siblings, or other relatives while obtaining a degree. It is common for these students to feel the need to work additional jobs outside of their departments, even if they have graduate fellowships or appointments.
Graduate students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds can experience greater difficulties accessing or creating professional networks in academe. They might not have had as many opportunities to develop these relationships as their peers from more advantaged backgrounds, especially those peers who grew up in academic families. This disparity surfaces most pointedly when students struggle with the costs of financing travel to professional conferences or the need to seek summer employment each year.
Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds often face having to disrupt their academic training during the summer. Because of financial constraints, they may seek better-paying jobs off campus instead of accepting low- or no-pay (but academically relevant) internships. Outside employment temporarily distances them from their studies, and fears of falling behind can arise. Professors who are unaware of their students' financial situations can inadvertently misconstrue interest in outside employment as a lack of commitment to academic study.
Some students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds can find it intimidating to hear about the spring break or summer travel experiences of fellow students. Those in the arts, humanities, and social sciences can feel especially vulnerable knowing that some of their peers have traveled to, or even lived in, the foreign countries they are studying.
Like many other graduate students, those from disadvantaged backgrounds probably have had to move away from their families. Once a student becomes socialized into the discipline, talking with old friends and family about scholarship or academe may be difficult. Some relatives might have trouble relating to the way a student talks about scholarly endeavors or might wonder why the student is not working in a "real job." This communication gap can cause graduate students to feel disconnected because they feel less comfortable in their old worlds but not yet settled into their new ones.