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July 3, 2017

Group provides supportive community for ECE graduate students

Written By: Pat DeFlorin

Graduate students accepted to the electrical and computer engineering department know how to get work done and succeed academically.

But being an engineering student can be stressful—and the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Student Association cracks through students’ innate crust of academic anxiety and models a balanced life for students as they transition from the structure of undergraduate life to the uncertain frontier of professional life.

The association is a group of five to 10 graduate students who represent different research focus areas within the department, steward a supportive graduate student community, and help students better connect with faculty, alumni—and with each other.

The idea for the GSA emerged out of a brainstorming session for ways to improve the graduate student experience held during Professor John Booske‘s transition to department chair.

GSA members serve as informal mentors; as a group, the GSA is a bridge between the student body and the ECE faculty, offering a safe space for students to voice their concerns—everything from wayfinding signs in the hallways to requests for new wireless access points that improve the internet connections in student labs and offices. In addition, they help with administrative issues like noting redundant courses in the course catalogue and encouraging the department to offer high-demand required courses more frequently.

“Previously it was just a black box—here are the courses, pick some,” says Ayushi Rajeev, the association’s president. “But now students have direct access to what is being offered.”

To address departmental issues raised by students, the association members collaborate with Booske. In addition to relaying feedback related to facilities and infrastructure to College of Engineering administration, Booske acts as a sounding board for the GSA, supporting its members as they explore ideas for how to enrich the community within the department.

“Having a visible and robust peer social community for support is an important component for a healthy graduate program experience,” says Booske.

To this end, the ECE GSA hosts an array of activities to promote student engagement within the department’s diverse student body.

“It is diverse however you define diversity—in pretty much every metric of diversity that you can find, academic, religious, social, socioeconomic background, you name it,” says Jonathan Snodgrass, a GSA member.

To bring together this diverse community, the GSA organizes academic, social and networking events. “The thing that’s uniting us all is electrical engineering,” says Jayer Fernandes, a GSA member.

One of those events is a gathering over coffee in which attendees watch a short video clip on a topic that promotes creative thinking but is not directly related to engineering or their work. Another academic event members are planning is a “fox hunt” design competition in which competitors build an antenna in order to find a hidden radio transmitter. The fox hunt aims to foster collaboration and allow students to apply the engineering concepts they are learning in the classroom and in their research labs.

Events like these expose students to areas beyond their expertise and introduce them to new people and ideas. “At each event, you hang out with a different bunch of people and you get to learn so much. They talk about their research and their specialty and help you consider things from a different viewpoint—it’s just enriching,” says Rajeev.

Besides academic events, the GSA organizes social events. In the past, the group has coordinated board game nights, movie nights, happy hours and holiday outings for Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. And in summer 2017, the GSA started hosting casual sporting events where students meet up to play basketball, for instance. And in the coming semester, the association plans to broaden its involvement within the Madison community through group volunteering activities.

The GSA also hosts networking events—the goal of which is to be a launch pad for students wanting to connect with alumni and a channel for alumni to foster relationships with them and to recruit the next generation of engineers.

As a whole, the mission of the GSA and the activities it organizes reflect a balanced lifestyle. “Your education should be holistic, not just academics,” says Snodgrass.

By modeling a healthy balance of academic, social, professional and community involvement, the association gives students a voice and empowers them to take charge of their education and future. “They help to nurture a social peer network among grad students that later in life can be the beginning of a professional network of Badgers,” says Booske.