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Grad student group aims to build a strong community vibe in CBE

Written By: Ascedia -

When Maya Venkataraman joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering as a graduate student in 2019, she got to know many other grad students in the department through game nights, volleyball tournaments, mixers, pizza parties, hikes and an array of other activities. “I was not really thinking about the events I went to, but I was having a good time at all of them,” she says. “And then one day, I kind of peeled back the curtain and saw that there’s a group of other graduate students making this possible. And I was really appreciative.”

Now, Venkataraman is co-president of that organization, the Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Association, aka ChEGS, along with Hayley Boigenzahn. ChEGS is one of the more vibrant graduate student organizations on campus, helping to build a community among students and faculty in CBE, offer peer mentoring for first-year grad students and provide the opportunity to socialize and blow off steam for everyone.

As part of its mission, ChEGS performs some important functions within CBE. For instance, when potential graduate students come for the annual weekend visit, ChEGS organizes student hosts who show visitors around campus and Madison. The group also sets up seminars where graduate students talk about their research throughout the school year.

The group also hosts social events once or twice a month, which have included activities like pumpkin carving, running, stand up paddleboarding, art nights, ultimate frisbee and board game nights, among many other activities.

While the social activities are fun, Boigenzahn says they are more important than they may seem. Life as a graduate student can be difficult to navigate and making friends, even in the same department, can be hard. “After your first year, you split into your research groups. Sometimes you’re so focused on your own work in your own corner of the building that you rarely have reason to go somewhere else,” she explains. “So the only time you encounter other people is in your classes or seminars. If you want friends outside of your year or lab, there needs to be an organization for that.”

In 2020, during the pandemic when many graduate students were more isolated than usual, ChEGS tried to fill the social gap. One of the group’s social chairs, Ryan Cashen, says ChEGS tried to do what it could to keep students connected to one another. The group hosted virtual get-togethers, online video games and even a virtual wine tasting. “We got good at virtual events there for a while,” says Cashen. “There was not as much participation, but that’s true for any group during the pandemic. A lot of people were stuck inside and were not necessarily going to enjoy staring at a screen for another two hours.”

In June 2021, ChEGS kicked off in-person events again with a volleyball tournament, and leaders hope to be able to keep live events going throughout the new school year. CBE hopes they can continue as well, and is supportive of the group. “We’d like to give a shout-out to the department for the budget they give us to work with,” says Boigenzahn. “That allows us to have things like coffee hours and pizza to lure people into student seminars. It’s nice to see the department being supportive of the students getting to know each other and that the department has buy-in for us trying to make this a community and support grad student happiness. It’s really good for department culture.”