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Supporting graduate life outside classrooms and labs

Graduate and professional students, many with families, bring a kaleidoscope of backgrounds, needs and pursuits to Stanford. A multi-faceted support system helps them build community and find success beyond their academic lives.

Tom Sengmany plays an integral role in the multipronged efforts to help members of Stanford’s graduate community take full advantage of their time on the Farm.

MBA student Tom Sengmany serves as a community associate, part of a network of 150 graduate students who support community-building in their campus residences. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Sengmany serves as a community associate, part of a network of 150 graduate students who spearhead community-building and connect neighbors in their residential communities to support services and social interactions. Meantime, he has been enjoying his own widening web of friends, in-person classes and activities, especially after COVID protocols began to ease during autumn quarter.

But when he arrived at Stanford a year ago to begin his graduate studies at the Graduate School of Business, he had to settle in during a time of social distancing and face coverings. He had never lived in the United States and knew no one at the university.

“Last year wasn’t easy with COVID,” says Sengmany, an MBA candidate from Paris. “First time on the Stanford campus, first time in California, first time on the West Coast – it was a rough transition.”

Although limited by COVID protocols, virtual and outdoor social gatherings sponsored by the GSB and Graduate Life Office (GLO) helped Sengmany get to know his new classmates and neighbors.

Navigating graduate life beyond labs and classrooms

Sengmany, along with about 9,000 other graduate and professional students, must navigate inevitable, commonplace and sometimes unique challenges in addition to their academic work. To help, Stanford offers a blend of support, rooted in affordable and convenient housing, financial assistance, social opportunities and recognition of students’ diverse lifestyle needs.

CAs, as community associates are known, are on the front lines.

“People know who we are. They can email us or send us a message on Slack. We want it to be very informal. I want people to feel free to say, ‘Hey, Tom, can we talk?’” Sengmany says. “Maybe they’re having issues with their roommate, they’re feeling overwhelmed with their academics and want to talk with someone, or they’ve had a long-distance relationship that just broke up.”

Ken Hsu is assistant vice provost for student affairs and director of GLO, which runs the CA program. He and his colleagues focus on both well-being and academic success for Stanford’s graduate community.

“These are driven, smart, busy folks, and if there’s nothing going on, they tend just to work,” Hsu says. “Unfortunately, when that happens, the temperature of the stress starts to rise. But the climate can change. So we really want our students to have access to community associates and an environment that gets people out of their rooms to see each other, to connect with each other.”

Those “rooms” encompass a number of townhouses, high rises, studios, shared apartments and larger spaces for families with children. Bay Area rents, which are too expensive for most graduate students, underscore the importance of the variety of subsidized housing that Stanford has long provided. In addition to being convenient and comfortable, residences need to be accessible to features that make graduate life – which can be both stressful and exciting – easier.

“Stanford is unique in the amount of housing available to graduate students. This year, about 68 percent live in university housing, along with 250 postdocs,” says Shirley Everett, senior associate vice provost for Residential & Dining Enterprises. “Graduate student housing offers a variety of programs and resources to nurture a vibrant community – indoor and outdoor spaces that support academic and personal pursuits, and residences that are both convenient to labs and classrooms and close to campus dining, recreation and social activities.”

Encouraging connections

Stanford’s graduate community extends across seven schools, where students pursue 15 distinct types of graduate degrees in 200 different programs. A third are international students, representing 100 countries. Some are just a few months removed from their undergraduate days, while others left established careers to return to school. Nearly 300 student families with children live in on- and off-campus university housing. Offering ways for such a diverse group to develop a sense of community, where everyone feels they belong, has been an enduring and growing area of emphasis at Stanford.

Kate Lagerstrom, a fifth-year PhD candidate in biology, is a community associate who also works for the Graduate Student Programming Board. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Kate Lagerstrom, a fifth-year PhD candidate in biology, says those efforts, which were hindered by the pandemic, remain a work in progress for some students.

“A lot of people get pretty pigeonholed into their departments, and everything social they do is with their lab group or with their department,” says Lagerstrom, who also works for the Graduate Student Programming Board. “There aren’t as many opportunities to meet people in the law school or the business school, coming from biology.”

Sengmany sees that challenge as part of his charge, too. He is one of 34 CAs living among the roughly 1,600 graduate students, spouses and partners in Escondido Village Graduate Residences (EVGR), which is Stanford’s largest and newest residential community for students.

“We all come from a different background, different countries, so it’s important to feel that the place where we live is a place where we belong,” he says. “We’ve had some super cool events. We don’t need to drag people to them. They’re really craving activities. It’s incredibly energizing to organize events where people want to mingle.”

Supporting families

Not far from EVGR, a more established neighborhood with groups of one- and two-story apartment buildings that share courtyards, picnic spaces and play areas is home for Yafang Bao, a PhD candidate in East Asian studies, her husband and their daughter, a toddler who is newly enrolled in on-campus child care.

Originally from Shanghai, Bao has studied in the United States for 12 years. Since arriving at Stanford five years ago, single life and a studio apartment have given way to the “nice playgrounds where we socialize, where we watch our kids play.”

Bao, who also is a CA, has organized gatherings such as Caring for Little Minds, a Zoom workshop to help parents cope during “a challenging and stressful time for families.”

A WhatsApp group has been “tremendously helpful in building community,” she says. “People move in and they are asking for help. It can be as small as needing an onion or a wagon or camping gear. People throw about event ideas and say, ‘We’re going to the pool in 30 minutes. Any other kids want to join?’”

Earlier this autumn, a welcome-back gathering in her complex featured a faculty bluegrass band. “It was a hit,” she says. “Everyone loved it, especially people coming from abroad, who said, ‘Oh, I really feel like I’m in America now, listening to this kind of music.’”

Bao also listens for her neighbors’ concerns. In-person socializing is easier now, but uncertainties and face coverings continue to present challenges. Even with financial assistance such as Stanford’s yearly $15,000 Graduate Family Grant – “which is great,” she says – some parents struggle with affordable child care options and logistics resulting from COVID protocols at the university’s on-site child care centers.

Addressing individual needs and enhancing well-being

Surveys and other feedback have shown social interactions and a sense of community don’t always come naturally. These serious, accomplished students can easily feel isolated.

Bao and Sengmany have both been struck by the number of students who, despite their strong academic backgrounds, report feeling “imposter syndrome” due to the presence of so many other high achievers. (“Everyone around me is so accomplished: doctors, athletes, investment bankers and so on,” as Sengmany describes the comments he hears.)

“You feel a little less confident because everybody else is so wonderful,” Bao says. “Sometimes I do, too. As a new student arriving, it’s good to know about mental health resources around here.”

Several of Lagerstrom’s peers have sought assistance from CAPS counselors at Vaden Health Services, and she relied on the Confidential Support Team while dealing with a personal situation. “I’m very grateful to have had their help,” she says. “Grad student life is pretty challenging. We need support.”

Building communities

A former Stanford doctoral student in chemistry, Stacey Bent is now vice provost for graduate education. Since taking on that role in 2019, she has focused on enhancing the overall graduate experience.

“Graduate and professional students are serious about the research and scholarship they’ve come here to pursue,” says Bent, a professor of chemical engineering. “But those obligations and responsibilities should go hand in hand with the chance to live comfortably, grow personally, meet new people and develop friendships that will last long beyond their time on campus.”

Lagerstrom, who grew up and attended college in Lincoln, Nebraska, has experienced Stanford first as a commuter and now as a resident. During the 2017-18 academic year, she lived in San Jose and rode Caltrain every day, then relocated to an on-campus studio the next year.

University housing has been crucial to her research, which entails collecting fecal samples from wildlife at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, about 4 miles away in San Mateo County.

“I do wet lab work, culturing bacteria, which often requires you to be there every 12 hours. You have a schedule to keep. Now it’s an 8-minute bike ride,” she says. “Living on campus, I feel exponentially more involved and more included.”

More and more features being incorporated in student housing are aimed at helping students meet their neighbors and connect with resources to help them adjust, cope and thrive. In addition, graduate students, like undergrads, can join student organizations throughout the year.

Scaling up activities at EVGR

Different residential settings have their own community-building features. Some have been in place for quite a while, like sand volleyball and courtyards at Rains Houses singles’ apartments, the games and great rooms at Kennedy Commons and open floor plans at Munger Graduate Residence.

At EVGR, Stanford added features geared toward life in high-rise residences. To encourage well-being, every floor has a wellness room, and alternating floors have fitness equipment or spaces for dance, yoga and contemplation. GLO is working with BeWell to provide healthy living offerings. Three to six “huddle rooms” on each floor provide a place for small groups to gather for a movie or individuals to work on laptops in a more social environment.

Because of the pandemic, EVGR’s opening in autumn 2020 turned out to be more gradual than originally planned. Now, with a growing menu of multicultural, educational, social and recreational activities, it is becoming the long-envisioned hub of graduate life on a different scale – underscoring the “village” in its name.

Beyond the sustainability features and eye-catching amenities for residents, EVGR was designed to be a home base for the larger graduate community, ushering in expanded and easier-to-access options for community-building, casual conversations that lead to weekend hikes, and after-lab gatherings that generate ideas and research plans.

EVGR features common spaces, open to the entire community, on the ground floor of buildings B and C, among them a new pub and brewery (a first for Stanford) in the pavilion, a marketplace, meeting rooms, wellness and maker spaces, a theater with a stage, and a playroom for students’ children.

On a recent walk, Lagerstrom noticed the “tons of open study space” and the music/recital room.

“Pre-COVID, I used to go play piano in the basement of the Kennedy front desk area,” says Lagerstrom, who entered competitions through high school and likes to relax with music. “I saw a student playing a full-sized piano in the music room in EVGR and made a mental note that I should have access to that room.”

Identifying and expanding pathways

Each year New Graduate Student Orientation officially kicks off the university’s efforts to set up graduate students to succeed academically, become comfortable on campus and meet other community members. An optional, free late summer program also helps students make the transition to graduate school.

But the real work – which entails heavy involvement by offices and organizations providing support services and cultural, ethnic, religious and other connections – continues throughout graduate students’ time at Stanford.

“We have to be mindful and intentional in getting students to think about life outside of academics,” Hsu says. “Graduate students form their ‘apartment to department’ path very quickly and they don’t veer off that very often – back and forth, back and forth. Our mission is to get them to veer off that path, just a little bit, and introduce something new that’s fun, social, relaxing, informative.”