On a recent morning, Sara Richards, a Ph.D. candidate in biological sciences and president of the Communicating Science student organization, faced a group of new graduate students at the Graduate Life Center after leading them through a series of improvisation activities.

“What do you want to know? I’m a graduate student, too,” she said. “Ask me anything.”  

They took her up on the offer, asking about her first weeks as a student, how she manages extracurricular activities with her scholarly work, and how she communicates with her advisor.

The graduate students were participating in a new program geared toward those who are new to the community, new to the country, and new to graduate education. Graduate students often move to the community weeks ahead of undergraduate students’ move-in date, as they typically live off campus and take possession of their residences in early August.

The program, called GearUp, was developed by the Graduate School Office of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion (ORDI) and the university Office of Student Opportunity and Achievement Resources (SOAR) to provide those students an opportunity to get to know more about the university and its resources, graduate education, and the larger community beyond the campus.

ORDI Director Shernita Lee and SOAR Director Crasha Townsend built a two-day experience filled with workshops, presentations, tours, and opportunities to meet other graduate students. The first GearUp program drew more than 60 students, many of whom had just come to Blacksburg.

“GearUp was the perfect name to represent the graduate school experience that these students ae embarking upon,” Lee said. “Gears are multiple sizes and move at different speeds; yet, they accomplish the task at hand when the design and structure is in place. Ultimately, we wanted to gear them up to be successful graduate students by providing this intentional foundation.”

Sessions covered a range of topics to help students prepare for the semester.

Engineering Education Professor Holly Matusovich, the associate dean for graduate education and professional studies in the College of Engineering, talked about getting off to a strong start. Matusovich’s session was interactive as she encouraged students to ask questions and think about their plans and expectations. She also focused on communicating with mentors.

Graduate School Director of Student Services Lauren Surface discussed making the transition from undergraduate to graduate status, especially at a new campus. Other presenters shared tips and information about Career planning, student advocacy, communication, and additional opportunities at Virginia Tech.

Katherina Reis Farina, who will pursue a master’s degree in communication, said she attended the program “to get to know all the resources the university offers and to meet other graduate students.” She found the sessions and the opportunity to network helpful. “I’m loving it so far.”

Rafiat Kaka, a doctoral student in aerospace engineering, had similar goals. “I’m just coming in,” she said. “This is my first orientation program.” She, too, wanted to meet other incoming graduate students and said the conversations and meals with other attendees helped her achieve that goal.

Lee said planning is already underway for next year’s sessions. She surveyed students who attended the program and several have written back to say how helpful it was for them and how much they enjoyed meeting other students from programs across the university.

 “If we want students to feel like they belong to our graduate student community, we have to create spaces for organic and productive conversations to equip them for success,” Lee said. “I consider GearUp as a workshop to outline the tools in their new graduate school toolbox, so when a tool needs to be used, these participants will be ready and empowered to overcome any obstacle they may encounter.” 

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