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Through Fellowship, Graduate Students Help Steer Graduate Education

At the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, select graduate students are looking up from their academic books and monographs to examine a different type of question: Just how does this institution work, and how can it work better?

Those questions are part of the Fellowship in Higher Education Leadership, now in its third year, which is giving graduate students a voice in how GSAS is run. That’s a good thing for the graduate school, but also for the fellows, who get behind-the-scenes experience that prepares them to lead colleges and universities effectively in a time of change, said GSAS Dean Eva Badowska, who initiated the fellowship.

“What it does is demystify the functioning of the University for graduate students,” she said. “It engages them in making decisions about policies, outcomes and programs that are going to be here for the next generation of students, and it keeps me on the ground. It provides me with the immediacy of their voices, and so their voices filter directly into decision-making here in this way.”

The two-year fellowship pairs doctoral students with a senior GSAS administrator, who serves as mentor. The fellow “shadows” his or her mentor for a year, sitting in on meetings and learning how a university works, and spends the second year helping to develop new policies and programs while also mentoring that year’s incoming fellow.

Eva Badowska (Photo by Tom Stoelker)

Eva Badowska
(Photo by Tom Stoelker)

The program is distinctive for bringing students into senior-level staff meetings and seeking their views on subjects like the development of new programs, said James Van Wyck, a doctoral student in English and the first to hold the fellowship.

“There are leadership programs in higher education, but I don’t think any of these programs approach the level of engagement we have with the GSAS administration here at Fordham,” he said.  “Good leaders in academia today are collaborative and have the vision to seek out voices that aren’t currently part of the administrative structure. Collaborative mentorship makes this program what it is.”

It’s also a necessary effort to get graduate students involved in “shaping the future” of the academy, he said.

Broadening graduates’ career options is an important part of that future, said Van Wyck, who worked with the second fellow—philosophy doctoral student Joseph Vukov—to help launch GSAS Futures.

A collaboration among GSAS, the Graduate Student Association, and the Office of Career Services, GSAS Futures helps graduate students prepare for careers both within the academy and beyond. Its events have focused on securing prestigious fellowships, using new technologies for teaching and research, and creating a digital identity, among other topics.

“For GSAS Futures to thrive, we realized with needed strong partnerships with on-campus partners like Career Services,” Van Wyck said. “And I’m happy to have played a role in bolstering these types of relationships.”

Vukov, meanwhile, is working on a certificate of accomplishment for graduate students that reflects the pedagogical experience they pick up at Fordham. In addition, he worked with Dean Badowska and the Office of Institutional Research to secure funding for a study of how graduate students perceive Fordham’s Catholic and Jesuit mission and contribute to it.

The results of the study, funded by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, have been circulated to deans at other Catholic institutions and presented by Vukov at a meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools.

Both Vukov and Van Wyck spoke of the need to show graduate students that the skills they learn—teaching, research, public speaking, and the like—both strengthen their self-presentation on the academic job market and give them options beyond the traditional academic career track.

Because of changes in the job market, “we need to keep shifting the dialogue away from ‘professor or bust,’” Van Wyck said. “One of our proudest accomplishments is to be a part of getting that gear to turn a little bit quicker.” He said students who prepare for a variety of careers actually have an edge in finding tenure-track jobs in academia.

Another of their efforts focused on the language used to assess academic programs. Working with professors and the administration, they helped to frame terms like “outcomes” in a way that’s friendlier to professors nervous about encroaching corporate-speak.

“It sounds like we’re spitting out this product, but the ‘student learning outcome’ could be something like, in philosophy, ‘understands certain connections in the history of philosophy,’” said Vukov. “I actually think that assessment, done well, is about education and not about bureaucracy. Hopefully, people are able to understand a little bit more now what each other is talking about.”

The newest fellow, Naila Smith, a doctoral student in applied developmental psychology, has been working both within GSAS and in the wider University to help develop new academic programs, support GSAS Futures, and prepare GSAS for reaccreditation.

“Through this fellowship, you get to see the institution from another perspective,” she said. “For example, I now have a better understanding of how different disciplines think about student learning goals and assessment practices. I have also seen where my unique perspective as a psychologist, researcher, and graduate student has helped shape the emerging policies and practices discussed in meetings with University leaders.”



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