How Higher Ed Can Support Graduate Students in the Virtual Environment

by Arsene Frederic Jr.

Countries around the world are reckoning with the tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic, which feels like it will get worse before it gets better. In the U.S., many recommendations posed by the scientific or public health community have been met with equal measures of support and backlash, partially due to the unpredictable nature of this pandemic.

For example, in their April 2020 study, researchers of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that “social distancing can provide crucial time to increase healthcare capacity but must occur in conjunction with testing and contact tracing of all suspected cases to mitigate virus transmission.” However, many Americans have found reason to disagree with the legitimacy of such recommendations due to the competing conspiracy theory that “the COVID-19 outbreak was planned.” In a June 2020 Pew Research survey, “about a third of U.S adults who have heard this claim say that they think it is ‘probably’ (28%) true.” 

These sentiments might speak to the declining public trust in American government since the 1960s, but also the general increase in political polarization in the country, such as that seen in the debate surrounding the next round of stimulus funding that will greatly affect all Americans. 

It is critical to reflect on the effect that all of this has on students, particularly graduate students. To pursue graduate education means agreeing to undertake a period of study for the period of time that is required to become a specialist or expert in a particular field. The mental health crisis has been going on for decades, but the new virtual learning environment, the ongoing pandemic, and the polarization surrounding basic issues of public health doesn’t provide a supportive landscape for success. 

Though the responsibilities of a graduate student changes based on the academic program and region, the theme of maturity and independent study is consistent. Many graduate students are adults with full careers, and some have their own families. COVID has changed the rules of what it means to be a graduate student and it is important that institutions for higher education consider ways to support graduate students during this difficult time. 

Doctors, researchers, engineers and scientists from all fields of knowledge around the world work together tirelessly to confront the coronavirus outbreak with an unprecedented spirit of collaboration. From this, we can learn that the key to overcoming COVID lies in work where there is a mutual agreement between parties to collaborate due to their shared mission.

For the field of higher education, collaboration can be a tool of empowerment. The priorities of higher education institutions and graduate students align when it comes to ensuring graduates and alumni successfully enter into the workforce. The pandemic has forced leaders within higher education to reexamine their strategy and career pipeline partnerships due to the U.S economic depression brought on by COVID. 

A McKinsey Global Institute analysis, based on multiple sources, indicates that “the shock to our livelihoods from the economic impact of virus-suppression efforts could be the biggest in nearly a century.” In another McKinsey report it states “two years from now, about 70 percent of the executives in our survey expect to use more temporary workers and contractors onsite at their companies than they did before the crisis.” Navigating the career landscape in the midst of COVID-19 as a graduate student can be scary, but it is also an area where higher education organizations can create long-term platforms for economic equity and growth by identifying opportunities in new and growing fields to support job growth and recruitment.

Take, for example, the growing opportunities in the field of renewable energy. As mentioned by Forbes Business, “renewable energy is becoming one of the key creators of jobs in the global economy, with 11.5m people now employed in the industry around the world.” Better aligning education and training is also essential for equipping clean energy workers with the skills they need to succeed on the job.

Nine in 10 millennials say it is important to work for a sustainably conscious company, and 41% of the Gen Z population is interested in working or studying in an area that is somehow related to sustainability. Consumer behaviors impact every aspect of organizational culture such as strategy, costs marketing and more. These findings can be crucial for higher education institutions and organizations as they are planning for the post-COVID era. But, more importantly, these trends speak to the need to focus and adapt and on cultivating a supportive environment for graduate students and their careers. 

Featured Image Source: https://giwps.georgetown.edu/diversity-equity-inclusion-in-higher-education/

Many academic programs for graduate students have prepared curriculums, instituted social distancing guidelines, hired supportive service staff, and more in order to continue to train and prepare students to meet the demands of our time and fulfill careers that we need to thrive as a society. The task of learning in the virtual environment during a national public health pandemic brought on by COVID-19  is not something to downplay, especially because the rapid transition to the virtual environment is something that school administrators, educators, families and students were not prepared for.  But by adapting to help graduate students navigate the tricky, COVID-era career landscape, higher education can support their students while preventing a setback in the workforce.

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