Mentoring Needs in a Diverse Community

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.

Age

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.

Fear of having "rusty" skills

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.

Devaluation of life experiences

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.

Invisibility in the classroom

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.

Isolation from fellow students

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.

Awkwardness with faculty

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.

Suggestions for Students

  • Talk to your peers and mentors about how your prior professional and educational experiences are transferable to graduate study. Whenever possible, link real world examples to theory.
  • Visit faculty members regularly during office hours or set up appointments with them. Few ways are better to help professors and potential mentors understand who you are and what you are about.
  • If you have been in the workforce for several years, jot down your five most polished skills and identify their correlates in academic work. Advertise these skills in your interactions with faculty and peers.
  • Take the initiative to lead discussion groups or projects that mix people of different ages and experiences. Avoid always joining or forming study teams that consist only of same-age students.
  • Ask younger graduate students for suggestions on readings or for technological assistance (if you need it).
  • Offer technological assistance to your graduate student peers if your prior experience exposed you to useful computer applications and tools. Students and faculty alike will be drawn to your special skills.
  • Initiate social activities on and off campus, such as dinner parties or community events.
  • Start an interest group or a writing group.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Value older students' knowledge by asking how their life experiences inform their graduate scholarship.
  • Link theory and practice so that all graduate students can understand how information learned in their program transfers to the world outside.
  • Explore the disconnects between theory and practice that arise for your students. Older students welcome opportunities to use their experience as a resource and to test their assumptions as they grow as scholars.
  • Welcome the contributions older students make by occasionally asking them to lead discussion groups.
  • Develop ways to ensure that older students are integrated into work groups or teams so that they do not end up always working with other older students.
  • Include older students in out-of-class study and writing groups.

Career aspirations and prior work experience

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.

Resources

  • The Preparing Future Faculty Program, offered through the Office of Graduate Studies, helps graduate students prepare for academic careers by offering structured opportunities to observe and experience a full range of faculty roles and responsibilities.
  • Career Services supports students in exploring a variety of career options and employment services.

Suggestions for Students

  • Discuss with your mentors and peers how your prior work experience influenced your decision to pursue graduate study or relates to your research and teaching. Understand that your career aspirations might not reflect the same interests that motivated your professors. Explain to them how the concepts, theories, and tools you are learning support your own career aspirations.
  • Ask your mentor to help you explore a wide range of professional development opportunities, such as serving on graduate student or department/university committees, and doing service, teaching, or research internships on or off campus.
  • Be aware of new opportunities for knowledge workers and periodically check on the condition of the academic and non-academic labor market in your discipline.
  • Consult your disciplinary association, or the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for current data and trends.
  • Offer your mentors periodic updates about how your professional goals are developing, changing, and being enriched by graduate study.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Ask students about their career aspirations and how they expect graduate education to help them achieve their goals.
  • Ask students how their prior work experiences relate to or have influenced them to pursue graduate study. Have students write about these understandings and invite them to make periodic observations about how they are developing professionally.
  • Ask students how their current scholarship informs their perspective on prior work experiences.
  • Provide opportunities in seminars or group work for students to link theory and practice.
  • Remind students of the "wisdom of practice" and its importance in scholarly and professional development.
  • Realize that career aspirations may shift several times over the course of students' degree programs, so be prepared to help your protégés seek out a variety of job opportunities.
  • Tune in to new economic opportunities for "knowledge workers" by periodically checking on the condition of both the academic and nonacademic labor markets in your discipline. Consult your disciplinary association or the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook for current market data and trends.
  • Help students pursue a healthy balance of professional development opportunities such as research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and special leadership opportunities, such as university or student committees. Whatever their ultimate career choice, your mentees will benefit greatly by learning how their skills apply in multiple arenas.

Disabilities

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.


Reluctance to ask for help

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.

Effort exerted just to keep up

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.

Problems that arise from last-minute changes

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.")

Resources

For further information and advice:
  • Services for Students with Disabilities
    SSD has developed handbooks for both student and faculty about services and advice for possible accommodations.
  • Accommodation Resource Center
    The ARC has various computers, readers, speech dictation machines and scanners that can be of great assistance for students who are visually impaired or blind, have mobility impairments (including repetitive stress syndrome), or are learning disabled.

Suggestions for Students

  • If you are a student with a disability, inform your professors and contact the SSD Office as soon as possible to determine how your needs can be accommodated to ensure equal access.
  • Get a head start on readings by requesting syllabi in advance from your professors. Ask them to prioritize readings or task assignments if you anticipate difficulties completing them within the assigned time.
  • Ask your professors to put an outline on the board for each class or seminar so that students with attention disabilities can follow the learning goals that day. Such an outline will benefit all students.
  • Ask your professors how flexible they can be with deadlines. If you need additional time to complete tasks due to the nature of your disability or the accommodations you utilize, discuss this with your professors. Also, alert your professors to the additional steps or time you might need to take to deal with sudden changes in syllabi or research assignments.
  • Focus on your and your peers' abilities. For example, if you use a wheelchair for mobility, demonstrate how you are able to use overhead projectors, blackboards, and other instructional tools or laboratory equipment. This is especially useful in job interviews.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Assume that there are students with disabilities, including invisible disabilities, among your graduate students.
  • If you have a student in a wheelchair, know whether your office, lab, or seminar room is accessible. If not, work with the student and SSD to determine what accommodations will ensure equal access.
  • Be explicit in your seminars and on your syllabus that you want students with disabilities to contact you as soon as possible about accommodations they may need. Be sure they know how best to contact you.
  • Put your syllabus together as early as possible so that students with disabilities who need a head start on readings, or need reading materials converted, can do so. Mark which readings are required or optional, those of highest priority, and the due date for all reading assignments.
  • Write an outline on the board for each class so that students with learning disabilities can follow the larger context of the learning goals that day.
  • Plan creative group exercises so that students with various kinds of disabilities can participate and accomplish the exercises.
  • Be as flexible as possible with deadlines. Students with disabilities do not want requirements lowered for them but may need additional time to complete tasks.
  • Develop accommodations for missed seminars and meetings in advance and communicate them clearly.
  • Focus on your students' abilities, not their disabilities.
  • Do not hesitate to ask a student with a disability if she or he needs assistance.
  • If you suspect a student might have a disability, or you are not sure how to meet the needs of a student with a disability, contact SSD.

Family responsibilities

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.

Dual commitments

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.

Isolation

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.

Time constraints

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 differences

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.

Suggestions for Students

  • Help your mentors and others understand that family responsibilities may take away from class sometimes or mean you are able to work in the department only during certain hours.
  • Ask professors to distribute a schedule of assignments in advance so you can integrate them into an already demanding schedule.
  • Alert your professors and peers in advance if you use a cell phone or beeper for the purpose of staying connected in case of family emergencies.
  • Seek out graduate students and faculty who can share strategies and resources for balancing family and academic life.
  • Ask your peers to be flexible with study group times or invite them to meet at your home if you live locally.
  • Explore the use of e-mail, listservs, or discussion boards to facilitate group discussions away from the department.
  • Be open with others about your family responsibilities. When appropriate, consider bringing your children to your department's social functions or to the office to help your peers and professors understand what your life is like beyond the department.
  • Use various means to demonstrate professional commitment and productivity. Be highly focused and productive when you are in the classroom, office, or lab. When you cannot be there, provide advanced notice and use other means, such as e-mail, to stay in touch or contribute your ideas.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Develop accommodations for students with family responsibilities who might need to miss some seminars.
  • Distribute assignments well in advance so students can fit them into demanding schedules. Because some students must set aside significant time for their families on weekends, you are not providing enough advance notice if you assign work on Thursday and say it is due on Monday.
  • Identify ways to accommodate students' requests to work in groups that meet during the day. Encourage students to explore e-mail, listservs, and discussion boards to facilitate group work.
  • Discuss your own family responsibilities with your graduate students. If you have children, bring them to the office or to departmental social events now and then. Doing so reinforces the fact that it is possible to have a family and a successful academic career.
  • Plan some departmental, family-friendly social events. Pick a time of day when families can attend, and be sure the invitation states specifically that children are welcome.
  • Help students to communicate how a graduate degree can bring long-term benefits to them and their families.

Gender

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.


Assertiveness

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.

Competitiveness

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.

Importance of positive feedback

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.

Resources

For special programs and workshops focusing on women:
If you need to discuss issues of sexual harassment and/or a hostile working environment:

Suggestions for Students

  • Discuss with your mentor or professor what kinds of interactions make your participation in seminars or collaborative projects difficult. Suggest concrete ways he or she can help you participate more, such as by directing questions to you more explicitly.
  • Experiment with ways of influencing class discussion so a few students don't monopolize the conversation. Encourage those who have participated once in a discussion to wait until others have had a chance to talk before contributing again.
  • Point out, if a professor or peer interrupts you, that you would like to complete your thought or contribution.
  • Avoid addressing your peers or professors as spokespersons for their gender. Invite your peers to offer their perspective, and, if appropriate, ask how gender may or may not influence them.
  • Try to influence the tenor of group discussions that become excessively critical by asking, "What contributions does this particular article/person/report make?"
  • Participate in discussions and projects in multiple ways if you find you contribute better outside of large groups (e.g., small group or pair work, e-mail discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions, and office hours).
  • Be aware of how peer or discussion groups form and try to include all who want to participate.
  • Ask your mentors and/or professors to provide clearer feedback on your work, if you find their comments vague.
  • Convey feedback on your peers' projects in concrete terms. Saying "this paragraph exposes the research problem succinctly, but leaves out one important point" is clearer than saying "not bad" or "I don't have any major problems with it." Ambiguous feedback can hinder others' performance.
  • Remember that you have recourse to departmental resources and representatives from the Graduate Studies Office if you feel you are being treated in ways that negatively impact your graduate work.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Set ground rules with your students for group discussions in your courses or labs, and explain how your expectations for participation will advance students' learning goals.
  • Experiment with ways of preventing a few students from dominating your seminars. For example, encourage students who have participated once in discussion to wait until others have had a chance to talk before contributing again.
  • Avoid calling on male or female graduate students to be spokespersons for their gender. Invite students to offer their perspectives, and, if appropriate, ask them to share how they think gender may or may not influence them.
  • Adjust the tenor of discussions that become overly critical. Remind students that it is always easier to criticize a work than to produce one, and follow up with: "What contributions does this particular piece make?"
  • Acknowledge multiple forms of participation, e.g., group or pair work, e-mail discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions, and office hours. Some students contribute better in small groups.
  • Be aware of how discussion groups form in your seminars and determine ways to intervene if students become excluded or marginalized.
  • Make sure graduate students know how to contact a departmental or Graduate Studies representative if they feel they are being treated in ways that negatively impact their work.
  • Use concrete language to convey feedback on students' work. Saying "this paragraph exposes the research problem succinctly, but leaves out one important point" is clearer than "this is not bad" or "I don't have any major problems with it." Ambiguous feedback hinders students' performance.

International status

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.

Language and culture in the classroom

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.

The rules of the academic game

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.

Social stresses

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.

Resources

  • The Institute for International Teaching Assistants, a summer program offered by the Office of Graduate Studies, helps prepare international students for their roles as graduate teaching assistants.
  • The International Student and Scholar Office (ISSO) helps international students maintain their immigration status and comply with U.S. employment regulations, and assists UNL departments to retain their international students and researchers.

Suggestions for Students

  • Learn about American academic rules and regulations. Read the UNL Graduate Bulletin and make sure you understand what is expected. If you don't understand, ask your mentor, advisor, or someone in the Graduate Studies Office.
  • Although you may be tempted to spend social time with peers from your home country, look for opportunities to interact with other students as well. If you are still learning English, these interactions will help you practice and improve your language skills. You also may benefit from participating in a Conversation Partners Program.
  • Ask advanced graduate students to offer advice on how to navigate the UNL system. Their experiences will be recent and relevant.
  • Ask your peers or the professors themselves about the best ways to interact with your professors and mentors: in person, e-mail, phone, office hours, or group meetings. It is important to feel that your lines of communication are open as you adapt to a new environment.
  • Help your peers and faculty mentors learn that even international students who speak English very well can still experience cultural dissonance or confusion about U.S. graduate education.
  • Be aware that the rules governing graduate studies and funding in the United States may be different from those in other countries. Most students have a single country visa that prohibits them from traveling freely outside the United States. Also, they cannot work for pay, except for TA or RA positions. If you have questions about your program's requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about international student travel or work, contact the International Affairs Office.
  • Talk with faculty about your past training and point out the new demands you face from the American educational system. If it is hard for you to jump into classroom discussions, ask if they will help you acclimate by calling on you for specific responses, or suggest some other strategy.
  • If you find it difficult to converse via e-mail, let faculty know that seeing facial and body expressions helps your understanding. Most faculty will be willing to accommodate your needs, but first they must know what those needs are.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Encourage international students to read the UNL Graduate Bulletin and be available to help them understand what is expected if they come to you for advice.
  • Help international students acclimate to your seminars by occasionally calling on them to participate in discussion. Assure them, especially those who are the most quiet, that you are stimulating dialogue and not singling them out.
  • Reserve extra time outside of seminars or labs to interact with international students. Ask them about their research and outside interests, their families, how they are adjusting, and what education is like in their home countries.
  • Realize that not all international students have difficulties with English; many of them were trained in English-speaking institutions, and for others, English is their first language.
  • By the same token, avoid assuming that if an international student speaks English well, he or she does not experience cultural dissonance or confusion about how U.S. education works.
  • Offer a variety of ways for international students to meet with you so students with different levels of linguistic competence can choose how to communicate with you comfortably: in person, by e-mail, phone, scheduled office hours, or group meetings.
  • Make it a point to introduce new international graduate students to more advanced international students, and to U.S. graduate students with international experience.
  • Be aware that the rules governing graduate studies and funding in the U.S. may be different from those in other countries. Most students have a single-country visa that prohibits them from traveling. They also cannot work for pay, except for TA and RA positions, and are excluded from many U.S.-based fellowships. If you have questions about your program's requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about your students' travel or work, contact the Office for International Affairs.
  • If you have ever traveled to another country, recall how you had to rely on others' assistance to acclimate to the language and customs. Offer international students the same courtesies you found helpful.

Race and ethnicity

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.


Role models

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.

Stereotyping

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.

Lack of an explicit support system

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.

Exclusion from support networks

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.

Resources

If you find that stereotyping exceeds your ability to manage it:

Suggestions for Students

  • Reflect on how you have been socialized to think about race and ethnicity. Increase your awareness, socially and academically, by attending some of the numerous diversity forums on campus each year, and bring ideas for community building back to your department.
  • Understand that graduate students from different racial and ethnic groups confront different issues and challenges in their programs, without assuming all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Eliminate stereotypes in your behavior by recognizing your peers' unique strengths.
  • Inform yourself about scholarly advances that have resulted from the inclusion of multicultural research, knowledge, and perspectives in your discipline. Become aware of the challenges such advances pose to faculty and students pursuing them.
  • Reach out to students of color in seminars, discussions, and group assignments. Collaborate on research or teaching projects and look for opportunities to present these projects in departmental forums or disciplinary meetings.
  • Ask your department to offer workshops on financial support, mentoring, diversity, community building, success strategies, and other matters important to your success. Offer to help department personnel organize these kinds of events.
  • Consult the Graduate Studies web pages for listings of academic, professional, and community resources you can use to navigate the graduate student experience.
  • Talk with your mentors about ways they can help you achieve a broad range of professional development experiences. If you are a student of color on a fellowship, let faculty and peers know you are interested in guest lecturing or collaborating in different lab groups.
  • Familiarize yourself with minority peers and white peers inside and outside your department who can help expand your networks.
  • Gain exposure by joining student policy, curricular, or cultural groups. Serve and shape the needs of your community by being a student representative at faculty meetings, joining the Graduate Student Organization, or leading writing, study, or teaching groups.
  • Become involved with national networks for underrepresented minorities and women students. Identify national conferences for underrepresented groups and share these with your department chair. Consider asking for financial assistance to attend.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Reflect on how you have been socialized to think about race and ethnicity and make efforts to increase your awareness, socially and academically.
  • Inform yourself about scholarly advances in your discipline resulting from the inclusion of multicultural research and perspectives. Think about the challenges these advances pose to your discipline and to scholars.
  • Become a role model for students of color, regardless of your ethnic background. Learning more about minority students' needs will enable you to carry out this role. Also, build more explicit connections to faculty of color in or outside your department and expose your students to their work and ideas.
  • Seek, first and foremost, to understand students' individual needs. Students from different race and ethnic groups face issues and experiences differently than white students. At the same time, avoid assuming that all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Be aware of negative classroom dynamics and the ways they may affect the experiences of all students.
  • Explicitly recognize each minority student's unique strengths and scholarly promise. Talk to students about their strengths and help them improve in other areas.
  • Offer minority students a breadth of possibilities for scholarly interactions: leading discussions, collaborating on projects, designing workshops, and presenting research at campus forums or disciplinary meetings. This allows students to show their strengths and learn new skills.
  • Make sure your department offers at least one workshop per quarter on financial support, mentoring, community building, success strategies, and other issues of importance to all students, particularly those of color. Use e-mail, newsletters, or posters to publicize helpful resources available from the Graduate Studies Office and other campus units.
  • Help your department create a policy of providing varied and developmental assistantships to all graduate students, including students of color on fellowships. Broad exposure to different kinds of academic work is just as important as deep exposure to a research problem.
  • Use informal assignments to broaden graduate students' experience, such as being student representatives in policy, curricular, and faculty meetings, or leading various writing, research, or teaching groups.
  • Familiarize yourself with minority colleagues and white faculty both in and outside your department who may help extend all students' networks.
  • Learn about national networks for underrepresented minorities in your discipline and participate in them.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

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:


Homophobia

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.

Heterosexism

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.

Genderism

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.

Disclosing

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.

Resources

To learn about special programs and activities for GLBT graduate students:

Suggestions for Students

  • Assume that GLBT students or faculty are present in every classroom, lab, seminar, or campus meeting, and that they might not feel safe being out.
  • Assess your department's environment and your level of comfort with being out if you are a GLBT student. Find out who your allies are and utilize them.
  • Ask peers and mentors whom you know to be out to suggest how department members can create an environment conducive to everyone's learning and professional needs.
  • Establish standards for inclusive language and communication collaboratively with your peers and professors.
  • Avoid homophobic, gendered, sexist, or other discriminatory comments. For example, when talking about families, avoid talking as if every family were composed of a husband, wife, and children. Use words like spouse and partner instead of just spouse or husband or wife. These terms go a long way in letting GLBT students and unmarried students know they are represented in discussions.
  • Treat sexual orientation as a multidimensional phenomenon in your relationships with peers and mentors. Understand that homosexuality is only one of several expressions of sexual orientation, and that gender identity may not be fixed for everyone.
  • Encourage your department to put GLBT concerns on the agenda for graduate student orientations and training programs for faculty and staff.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Assume that GLBT students are present in every classroom, lab, seminar, or campus meeting in which you participate and that they might not feel safe being out.
  • Establish standards for language use and communication when you interact with graduate students. Convey that your goal in doing so is to ensure an environment that is conducive to effective learning and achievement.
  • Avoid using examples that are exclusive to heterosexual experiences. For example, when talking about families, avoid talking as if every family were composed of a husband, wife, and children. Words like "spouse" and "partner" instead of just "spouse" or "husband" or "wife" go a long way in assuring that GLBT students and students who are single are represented in discussions.
  • Ask students whom you know are out to discuss with you how best to address their learning and professional needs. Ask them if they are willing to foster discussions about how sexual orientation in academic settings can be handled productively.
  • Realize that your mentoring is more effective if you develop sensitivity to sexual orientation as a multi-dimensional phenomenon. That is, homosexuality is only one of several expressions of sexual orientation.
  • Discuss how discriminatory remarks impede the learning process, not only of GLBT students but of all students.
  • Encourage your department to put GLBT concerns on the agenda of graduate student orientations and faculty and staff training programs.

Socioeconomic background

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.

Economic 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.

Access to professional networks

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.

Summer professional opportunities

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.

Difference in background experiences

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.

Disconnection with family and friends

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.

Suggestions for Students

  • Try to learn from faculty and more experienced students about the ways academic networking works.
  • Be alert to and creative about funding opportunities, especially for the summer period. Well before the spring semester, be sure to ask your mentors and professors about their resources and how they can help you strategize for continuous support during your degree program.
  • Ask your professors to put books or course packets on reserve at the library or in the department to help reduce expenses.
  • Take pride in your scholarly accomplishments and share the news of your work in language that your friends and family back home can relate to.
  • Encourage and support all your peers' dreams and aspirations, just as you expect your mentors and peers to support yours.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Be aware that not all students have had the same opportunities to learn how to create networks to support their academic and career goals. Make an extra effort to introduce your students to people you know can help them expand their networks.
  • Be alert to funding opportunities for your students, especially for the summer period, and alert them to opportunities as far in advance as possible so they can plan effectively.
  • Put books or course packets on reserve so that students do not always have to buy their own copies.
  • Enrich the discussions students have with you and with each other by having them share perspectives from a variety of experiences — travel, study, work, international friends, family stories, etc.