When new graduate students begin life at Caltech and dive headlong into hands-on research, they must also learn to navigate a new lab, campus, and culture. For those students from underrepresented backgrounds, making new connections within this new community can be especially challenging.
With the launch of the Graduate Summer Research Institute (GSRI) this summer, recently admitted graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds now have an opportunity to acclimate to Caltech and build community before they start their graduate studies. Hanna Song, Senior Director for Inclusion and Diversity, says Caltech modeled GSRI on the long-running Freshman Summer Research Institute program that helps incoming first-year students adjust to campus life. "FSRI is amazing. They've had great outcomes, and the cohorts really gel together," she says. Graduate students had been asking for a similar program, Song says, and because Caltech has been instituting a series of initiatives to support diversity and inclusion, it seemed the right time to get the program off the ground, despite the challenges created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Nineteen incoming graduate students joined the inaugural cohort for GSRI 2020, which took place from September 14–18. Daily sessions led by Caltech faculty and staff members focused on professional development, covering skills such as how to make a compelling presentation, how to navigate relationships with faculty advisers, and how to combat impostor syndrome. In addition, three current Caltech graduate students—Renée Wang in geochemistry, Joshua Zak in chemistry, and Zoila Jurado Quiroga in mechanical engineering—served as mentors for the week to introduce incoming students to the graduate school experience.
"When I reflect on my scientific career so far, I realize that even though I worked hard to get to where I am today, so many others helped me along the way," Wang says. "Acting as a mentor for GSRI gave me this new opportunity to mentor and create a community for incoming students, and to foster a culture of interconnectedness and support here at Caltech."
"Many people that I have met are astounded by how an immigrant female of color beat the odds and is now studying at a prestigious university," says Jurado Quiroga. "People commend me for my strength in overcoming the odds, but personally I do not want to be commended for my strength. What I want is to feel a sense of belonging, the ability to talk to individuals I can identify with so that I don't have to be so strong in the first place. I believe the GSRI program will be a wonderful aid in achieving this goal by cultivating a community of support and belonging."
In Song's experience, graduate students face specific challenges that create the need for a program such as GSRI. Grad students might have very different experiences depending on their division and adviser, and although Caltech emphasizes collaborative interdisciplinary research, the Institute's decentralized nature means students sometimes must create their own opportunities to build community.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this first GSRI occurred remotely rather than on campus. Despite Zoom fatigue, Song says, the need to engage and connect prompted 19 incoming grad students to participate. In addition, some of the GSRI students are moving to Pasadena while others will work remotely, but all sought a way to meet people during a time when many in-person face-to-face interactions cannot happen. "I think that's what drove a lot of them to sign up," Song says, "to get a head start on how we're going to navigate Caltech in this remote environment."
The GSRI format is a work-in-progress, and Song looks forward to working on an in-person version of the program. The success of GSRI 2020 indicates that this cohort-building experience has been valuable and worth continuing. Participant Devika Pokhriyal says: "GSRI allowed me to meet fellow incoming students who share some of my identities, but also to hear about different perspectives and connect with people I might not have otherwise run into during my time at Caltech. I am certain this experience has made me infinitely better prepared for my graduate career than I felt a week ago."