New initiatives help grad students

When graduate student Kyle Farley came to Penn, he saw a university with an advantage over many of its Ivy peers: All the graduate and professional schools are on the same campus.

But Farley, now in his fourth year as a Ph.D. student in U.S. history, also saw a down side. “Most people only knew people in their own graduate school,” he said.
So Farley, now the chair of the Graduate and Professional Students Assembly (GAPSA), and Graduate Student Associations Council (GSAC) President Eric Eisenstein came up with a solution and wrote a proposal for a graduate student center.

That was a year and a half ago.

Come September, the center will become a reality, the Univers-ity announced late last month.

The quick turnaround “stunned” them, said Eisenstein, a fourth-year marketing Ph.D. student at Wharton. “We were quite prepared that this would be a five-year deal.”

The graduate student center is one of three new University investments in graduate student education. The others are in healthcare insurance and minimum stipends. Together, the initiatives add up to a significant investment in graduate education — more than $2 million per year in new money, Deputy Provost Peter Conn said.

The health plan initiative will provide health care insurance for the first six years of graduate study for full-time Ph.D. students in six of the nine schools that award Ph.D.s. Two of the schools excluded — Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Engineering and Applied Science — provide stipends set at a level that anticipates students’ need to pay for healthcare insurance. Ph.D. students in the biomedical graduate studies program in the School of Medicine already have their health premiums paid.

The health premiums, which will affect about 1,100 students, are being funded collaboratively by the University and the six schools.

In addition, the School of Arts and Sciences is raising the minimum stipend for Ph.D. students from $12,000 to $12,500. About 700 Ph.D. students will be affected, Conn said.

The graduate student center, which will serve 9,000 to 10,000 total graduate and professional students from every graduate school on campus, is to take up two floors in the building formerly known as the Veranda, at 3611 Locust Walk. Also involved in the planning were former GAPSA Chair Kendra Nicholson Brodin and Marc Cohen, a Ph.D. student in philosophy.

The first floor space, with its airy French doors in front, will serve as a large living room, with a fireplace, some computer terminals and a small kitchen. It’s a space for social gatherings, academic events like lectures, quiet conversations and reading, said Conn.
The second floor space will have offices and a smaller space for seminars and meetings.
Some existing support services for graduate students will also find a home at the center, including job counseling and teaching support.

Farley, who is also a graduate associate in Hill College House, sees the center as “a kind of nonresidential college house for grad students.”

A full-time director will be hired to manage the center and work with the graduate student organizations to develop programming with broad appeal, Conn said. “It was conceived as a gathering place for all of Penn’s graduate students, from law to medicine, from nursing to the dental school, to MBAs to Ph.D.s,” he said.

Both Farley and Eisenstein said their experience working with the administration was “collegial,” “friendly” and collaborative, and Farley said he was impressed by the commitment to graduate school education.

As for seeing the idea become reality, Eisenstein said, “It’s like giving birth.”


Originally published on April 5, 2001