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GSO Gives Out Grants To Grad Life Projects

By Rosa Cao
STAFF REPORTER

The Graduate Students Office has chosen recipients of the new Graduate Student Life Grants for this year, ranging from a drag show called “Fierce Forever” to “Peer2Peer,” a discussion group on tolerance. The grants are intended to provide resources for students to explore ways to “build community” through innovative proposals, rather than imposing top-down policies. Approved projects range in inclusiveness, with some addressing a small subpopulation of graduate students and others open to all members of the community.

The main selection criterion was: “Will it build graduate life community in some meaningful way?” said Amy Banzaert G, a member of the selection committee. Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert makes the final decision on all proposals.

According to the GSO Web site, the projects fall under several main themes. For example, they might address specific constituencies, such as a department or students with families, create a social context for people to connect and interact, or promote creative expression.

Projects address diverse issues

This year’s 19 successful proposals include several that promote community building through the sharing of food, including a “Community Cooking Group”, a “Taste of Mediterranean Foods” and the “[Department of Urban Studies and Planning] Alumni of Color Dinner Series.”

Others are as varied as a proposal for an “MIT International Review,” a journal about international affairs meant to encourage members of the MIT community to participate in discussion on world events, to the “[Health Sciences & Technology] knitting circle,” to the Fenway House “Creative Arts initiative.”

Successful past projects that have been institutionalized include “Weekly Wednesdays” at the Muddy Charles, featuring free snacks and chicken wings, and “Babynet”, a babysitting proposal that costs about $1200 per year, organized by the Office for Work and Family Life. Another project that has been funded for several years now is “MIT Snowriders”, which aims to get students and their families off-campus to enjoy winter sports.

On a more serious note, the graduate student mediation program REFS (Resources for Easing Friction and Stress), created by Peter T. Rye G for the Chemistry Department, has become “an established and integral part of the department,” as described in a proposal by Rye to expand the program to all graduate students.

Liaisons from the GSO follow each of the projects over the course of the year; the organizers submit a summary report at the end. GSO Director of Communications Barrie Gleason emphasized that the projects are meant to be experiments, and the chance to try things is itself a success for the program. She said that one of the biggest challenges was to take “these wonderful ideas, and integrate them into the fabric of community life at the Institute.”

Colbert said “some of these projects, like the [Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences] mug collection, are clearly meant to be one-time events.” Other events may not be successful immediately, but need a little nurturing, while instant successes like Weekly Wednesday and Techlink have eventually turned out to be seminal to Institute life.

Colbert said that one priority was to support proposals encouraging interaction between students from different departments, thereby helping to encourage “creative interdisciplinary science, which is more important now than ever before.” One example from this year’s round is the “Robotics Initiative”, which hopes to “pull together disparate robotics community members, from Course 2, the Media Lab, Mechanical Engineering, and EE,” who would not otherwise have a chance to interact or exchange ideas.

From a social perspective, “there’s a difference in people’s willingness to sit in lab for 60-80 hours a week and never see anyone else,” said Banzaert, “I think the tolerance for that has gone down.” She said that the big push over the past 10 years to improve undergraduate student life may have “trickled up,” and that improvements could be partially “attributed to these grants.”

Dean Colbert was more emphatic: “We did not have a graduate student community six to seven years ago. The new generation of students have a new attitude, more socially oriented.” Traditionally, “graduate students were not committed to the institution [MIT], but rather to labs and departments. We want to change that.”

The Graduate Student Council also promotes graduate student life and sponsors community building events. Gleason said that while the GSO works with the GSC on some activities, the GSC “also works to enhance student life in ways that our grants can’t address, through fellowships and housing” for example.

Building loyalty to MIT among the graduate students by improving their integration into a community may also be sound planning for the future; as 60 to 70 percent of the student body, a percentage that may increase with federal funding, graduate students represent a largely untapped potential source of future alumni donations.

Funding for the grants comes from the graduate portion of Student Life Fee, about $225,000 out of more than $600,000 total. The Dean for Graduate Students then allocates $25,000 to the GSC for activities, $25,000 to Assisting Recurring Cultural and Diversity Events, and the remainder to a discretionary Graduate Dean’s Fund, which varies from year to year ($50,000 last year) and the GSO grants, which totaled more than $100,000 this year.