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Building Community Via Departmental GSOs

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Building Departmental GSOs
Tabitha Graves

Creating Community in Your Program Through a Student Organization:
A Case Study

Graduate school can be an incredible opportunity to develop lifelong connections with future colleagues. Creating a student organization for students in your department can greatly facilitate development of this community. The Forestry Graduate Student Association (FGSA) provides one example of a way to do this with our demanding schedules.

The current incarnation of FGSA initially consisted of only a few graduate students with one professor advising them. They took on the task of organizing the Forestry Seminar series, which gave graduate students a personal investment in getting together every couple of weeks to talk about leaders in the field that they would like to invite to campus. The group quickly expanded once other students realized they could also bring in their academic heroes, and the group devised an equitable system for choosing speakers. Lab groups and several self-formed groups are each allotted a few speakers, whose names are then brought back to the larger group for approval. Because the forestry program is quite diverse, this results in a seminar program with something for everyone. The series is respected across the country, and the biology department at Dartmouth and the Wildlife Science Department at Texas A&M used our approach as a template for their seminar series. See our online schedule to check out this fall’s events.

For a balanced life we all need a break once in a while, so we organize several social events. We organize two barbeques each year: one in the fall to welcome incoming students and help develop connections among faculty, staff, and students; and one in the spring before everybody disappears for field work. We also have several less formal activities such as ice skating, bowling, and group nights on the town in addition to our very social meetings.

Getting together for the FGSA barbecue, 2009. (Photo courtesy FGSA)
Forestry Barbecue 2009

As involvement in FGSA grew, we began to take on more projects. The key feature in the success of our organization is division of labor—we have a president, vice-president, treasurer, secretary, social coordinator, seminar coordinator, plus representatives for the faculty and curriculum committees and the NAU-wide Graduate Student Organization. This means that each of us takes on only a little bit of extra work. Because our meetings are fun and the projects we tackle are relevant to our well-being, we now have around 30 students that participate in everything from representing us on various committees to community service projects to staff appreciation awards.

We are registered as a formal student organization. This gives us access to many additional resources, such as the ability to request funding from student-dedicated funds for special events. For instance, last year we organized three special workshops to help develop technical skills. For more information on how to do this, check out the Student Life website.

Last year we also began fundraising, which has permitted us to donate money to improve the native plant landscaping around the School of Forestry and to finance several other projects. We also have an e-mail listserv with only graduate students that makes planning events very easy.

Your department might not have very many people, but it’s pretty easy to start off with something small. If you choose an activity that is relevant and fun, you can expand as more people become involved to create an organization that helps you all.

—Tabitha Graves, PhD student, Forestry and FGSA president