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Credit: Isabel Liang

On June 25th,  Penn announced it will operate with a hybrid model in the fall. While many undergraduate concerns, such as dorms and dining halls, are addressed in some detail, the implications for graduate students are left relatively open: “Students will be provided with details directly by their programs.” This makes sense: while college is a very communal experience, graduate and professional degrees are often highly specialized and students tend to exist mostly off-campus. 

However, having recently spoken to Kelly A. Diaz, the new president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at Penn, I believe that the voices and presence of graduate students should and can be an integral part of the Penn community, especially as the new semester is raising so many daunting questions and concerns for us (as for everyone else). 

When interviewing her, I was very impressed by Diaz’s passion and clarity. She is also leading GAPSA as a queer woman of color and with a 3/3 female executive leadership.

Speaking about the year ahead, Diaz told me about her passion to work on “recovering emotionally, physically, financially from COVID-19, new visas and other issues for international students, and addressing recent concerns raised by Chinese and Black students” which includes supporting the Black Lives Matter movement at Penn and beyond. With regards to the University administration, Diaz is thoughtful about a real need for patience as everyone is moving from words of solidarity to action that can create a paradigm shift for Black students. She sees goodwill and action, but also agrees that there’s a real lag before changes happen. She encourages students to continue applying pressure for changes such as police divestment

Concerning the announcement of the hybrid fall semester, she says that there still exists “a lot of ambiguity for graduate and professional students. I think students are going to need to wait to hear from their G12 deans for more clarity on what their fall semesters will look like in terms of classes, clinical rotations, labwork, etc.” 

A hybrid model in the fall will pose great challenges for us as both students and teachers/TAs. We will have to prepare for a completely new setup. It will be a steep learning curve to support our students who encounter health or immigration challenges -- both of which might apply to the grad population as well. Crucial facilities like libraries, on-campus recreation, and socializing will have to be partially reinvented.

Diaz explains that GAPSA is a group of student volunteers who have their own work/life commitments but also want to be innovative with funding and engage productively with the administration. GAPSA will be able to play a crucial role advocating for new and evolving needs of a diverse body of graduate students facing unparalleled challenges. There are many ways to get involved, and even a small time commitment can lead to highly specialized impact.

Besides explaining some progress GAPSA has already made, such as restructuring to streamline advocacy around important topics, she adds that this is a year “to be bold”. With the new hybrid model, it is especially important to be creative in drafting new regulations, and graduate student voices should be part of that solution.

Diaz says, “It’s time to not use ‘this is how it’s always been done’ as an excuse. Instead, we should ask ‘Why is this not how things are done?’”

As graduate students, we experience the ongoing COVID-19 crisis both as students and as teachers. Whether it's graduate students financing their education by being RAs or those who live off-campus, the new fall arrangement impacts many aspects of our lives. Library access and networking opportunities at events are crucial to our development of careers as researchers at Penn. Moreover, we carry significant responsibility as teachers, especially if we teach stand-alone classes rather than grading or TA-ing for a professor. Thus, we are tasked to consider our own academic progress as well as support the learning and growth of the undergraduates. 

This unique position means we see many aspects of the current situation from both professor and student perspectives, for example when it comes to the all-important question of online vs. in-person teaching. We might, or not, wish to be reunited with our peers for a seminar, to socialize and discuss in person. At the same time, we understand that if students will live across time zones because of health, immigration, or other concerns, it will be a big challenge to allow the same amount of engagement and learning for everyone even when teaching online. There’s no clear cut solution here. Every class will need to work out its own format, guided by the professor who also has their own needs to consider. The final format will need to be based on its size, content, and the specific needs of each of its members. And this will be a massive challenge. 

With the university’s decision of a hybrid semester now trickling down to departments, programs, and individual faculty,  staff, and students, we are all grappling to understand what will be best for ourselves and each other in the fall within what is feasible, responsible, and allows the most academic progress under difficult conditions. Grad students’ unique vantage point that comes from having the needs of students as well as experiencing the perspective of teachers means that our voices will be an important part of shaping what the fall will actually look like, so Penn, please listen to what we have to say.

ANGELINA EIMANNSBERGER is a Ph.D. student entering her third year in the Program of Comparative Literature. Her research focuses on Contemporary US women writers, Socialist Feminism, femininity, and women’s book clubs. Her email address is aeim@sas.upenn.edu.  

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