U of G Providing Support to Grad Students

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U of G grad students Kristen Reid and Jean Holloway drilling into soil. (Merritt Turetsky)

For many University of Guelph graduate students, the COVID-19 pandemic upended summer research and study plans and some workplace practicums.

By providing various forms of support from “practicum pivots” to tuition top-ups, U of G has aimed to help graduate students continue their programs and maintain progress despite this year’s unprecedented events.

Most importantly, University faculty members have recommitted their existing funding of thesis-based graduate students, and U of G has provided $2,500 to unfunded students and top-ups worth as much as $2,500 to those with modest existing funding, said Ben Bradshaw, assistant vice-president (graduate studies).

That support has been critical for alleviating stress among students faced this year with everything from lost external employment to suspended lab and fieldwork, said Nicole Berardi, president of the U of G Graduate Students’ Association (GSA).

“For many graduate students, everything is very uncertain right now. It’s very unclear how the pandemic is going to impact students’ long-term studies,” said Berardi.

According to an April GSA survey of the roughly 3,000 grad students at U of G, top pandemic-inflicted concerns this summer include disrupted research projects, future funding concerns and lack of professional networking opportunities. Some students feel especially isolated and may be seeking mental-health supports; others are lacking customary access to research and project resources from professional archives to studio space.

In response, the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has instituted provisions and clarified options for grad students, said Bradshaw, who has provided regular email updates to students. He ran two virtual town hall meetings in early May to address concerns.

“Graduate students are facing an incredible amount of disruption. We hope to offer some certainty during these uncertain times,” he said.

Besides offering systemic funding supports, the University has extended accommodations, including the following:

• Existing bursary programs for domestic and international students have been bolstered and eligibility requirements loosened. In April alone, 93 international graduate students who demonstrated financial need received funding ranging from $200 to $1,200.
• Extensions have been provided for tuition settlement, and late fees suspended.
• Critical student services have been maintained and even expanded, including Student Accessibility Services, Counselling Services and services in other Student Wellness areas. The International Student Experience and Student Housing teams have increased outreach to check in with graduate students and to offer programs to mitigate social and emotional effects of the pandemic.
• U of G is working with other institutions through the Council of Ontario Universities and Universities Canada to advocate for and support grad students.
For graduate students whose research plans have been disrupted, progress is still possible, said Berardi.

She suggested students use this summer for doing online research, including literature reviews, or for writing portions of dissertations. As a PhD candidate in plant agriculture, she normally spends a lot of time studying weed-crop plant interactions in the lab; this summer, she is writing up results from her U of G studies over the past two years.

Since mid-February, U of G master’s student Robyn Haas had banked on a summer placement with a nearby regional public health department. But in late April she learned that the opportunity had been cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That lost opportunity turned into new options after she discussed her situation with population medicine professor Andrew Papadopoulos, coordinator of U of G’s master of public health (MPH) program.

For this summer’s practicum, Haas is now studying Canadians’ food handling and hygiene habits during the pandemic, working with Ian Young, a professor in Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health and a 2010 PhD graduate from her own U of G department.

She’s eligible for the $2,500 tuition subsidy from the University – an amount that will cover most of her tuition bill.

“It’s given me one less thing to worry about,” she said. “I’m very happy with how the University and my program has handled this unprecedented situation. I’ve definitely been supported.”

Several other MPH students worked with the Department of Population Medicine this spring to find new practicum placements after the pandemic altered their initial summer plans.

Simrun Flora planned to study mental health supports for health-care professionals with Hamilton Health Sciences. After her intended manager was redeployed into new duties related to COVID-19, Flora had a practicum offer from GlaxoSmithKline.

Now working from home in Mississauga, Ont., she is conducting a literature review for the drug maker about the cost-effectiveness of cancer therapies. She will use the U of G tuition subsidy for her summer course in program evaluation.

MPH student Sarah Martone is carrying out her planned practicum with population medicine professor Claire Jardine, studying environmental aspects of a prospective One Health surveillance approach to leptospirosis. She also plans to use the tuition subsidy for a course in ecosystem approaches to health.

Looking beyond the summer, Christopher Greyson-Gaito is thinking about employment prospects after he completes his PhD in theoretical ecology in the Department of Integrative Biology.

He’s investigating Aurora, an e-learning platform offered by Beyond the Professoriate based in Colorado that helps grad students with professional development and job searches. Through a subscription to the platform maintained by U of G, students can learn about networking, compiling a résumé and preparing for interviews.

“It’s the whole process from trying to find a job all the way to how to negotiate the final contract,” said Greyson-Gaito, who received an email about the service from the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Looking beyond the pandemic, he added, “It’s intended to help grad students transition from grad student life to work.”