Graduate Studies Is Staying Strong
Melissa Terrio says she can’t recall a time when the whole world was experiencing the same dramatic and unexpected shift to a “new normal.” In the Office of Graduate Studies (OGS), navigating life during the COVID-19 pandemic has posed real challenges to prospective and current students, as well as its staff members.
Luckily, the office has leaders like Terrio who are guiding students and staff alike through the chaos caused by COVID-19.
Recently promoted to executive director of Graduate Studies, Terrio says part of the secret to keeping a smooth workflow and addressing the whirlwind lies in taking care of current and prospective graduate students.
This is especially the case for international students, who are unsure if they will be able to come to campus—or this country—in the fall. “We’re working hard to ensure that we have a strong fall class,” she says. “We’re working on ways to help these students become part of the WPI community, get to know each other, get to know the faculty and administration, and attend Orientation online, if necessary.”
One of the ways Graduate Studies has supported these students is through multiple virtual information sessions and boot camps, such as the Zoom session on WPI’s combined Bachelor’s/Master’s degree programs, earlier this month. During the session, WPI faculty and staff covered the value of completing two degrees in a five-year span, the application process, and financial aid; they also offered perspectives from WPI alumni who took this path.
“With the economy shifting as a result of the pandemic, it might be tough for people to find work,” Terrio says. “We want to make them aware of opportunities like the dual degree program, where WPI might be a good fit for them and help their futures.”
Graduate Studies also schedules individual Zoom meetings with prospective students to answer questions and ease anxieties. “We might not know the answers to all of the questions, but we handle each one with compassion and empathy, even if we’ve been asked the same questions many times in one day,” Terrio says. “We’re fostering a community with these students.”
Rory Flinn, assistant dean of Graduate Studies, follows an approach similar to Terrio’s, but focuses more on supporting current graduate students. He says
his days are busy with Zoom meetings with students, often including a professional development workshop or two.
“I mainly interact with students through my professional development programs,” he says. “I ran a virtual thesis/dissertation writing boot camp, a webinar on conducting a virtual thesis/dissertation defense, and a leadership series. I’m currently running a postdoctorate position search boot camp, and I'll be running a career talk on resiliency.”
Even during hectic times, Flinn says the department’s professional development curriculum is of high interest to prospective grad students since other graduate schools don't have centralized services like WPI does. He also says the university also has great fellowship opportunities that catch prospective students’ eyes. “I have taken over the administration of the WPI Presidential Fellowship program for this next year, which is an award we use to recruit PhD students from underrepresented backgrounds,” he says. “I will be working closely with Melissa on this program going forward.”
On top of that, Flinn can relate to what current students are going through: his own experiences as a graduate student and postdoc were rough seas. Halfway through his master’s studies at the University of Delaware, his advisor took another position. Then his PhD studies at Albert Einstein College of Medicine were halted for a few weeks due to a fire in his research lab building. During his postdoctoral training at NYU School of Medicine, his work was waylaid for a few months after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012.
“What helped," says Flinn, "was getting messages from the dean that said, ‘This is what we are doing to help you,’ or ‘This is what you don’t have to worry about.’”
Like that dean’s approach, Graduate Studies offers its staff and students the human touch—virtually. Using e-mail and video chats to acknowledge the uncertainty of the future and the challenges caused by COVID-19 has helped Flinn give graduate students a boost.
“I ask students how they are doing, and how the Graduate Studies staff and I might be able to assist them,” he says. “I have also sent e-mail directly to PhD students noting the challenging situations they are likely facing, and letting them know that the OGS is thinking of them and is available to assist them in a range of ways.”
As she transitions into her new role as executive director without being able to physically see and interact with her team, Terrio finds that digital connections go a long way. “In every e-mail I send, I try to go above and beyond,” she says. “I mean it when I say, ‘I hope you’re doing well—I hope you're staying healthy, safe, and sane.’ I tell my staff they’re doing a good job, and encourage them to go for walks … to take care of themselves.”
She carries the same intention for her digital interactions with students. “I want to make sure that they know I’m there for them,” she says. “The whole Graduate Studies team is working hard to have a strong fall class. We have great students, and we can’t wait to welcome them.”