Ever walk into a room and walk out as someone totally different? I did. It was July 21, 2016. I entered the room as a student and left as a scholar.
I always felt smart, but there is the saying, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” This rings true, but in most of my years as a graduate assistant, I felt like a very educated copy machine. I repeatedly came up with ideas and asked to help write, research, and create projects.* I was told no. I let it eat at my confidence. I allowed the denial to cast doubt on my intelligence. “But how did I earn a full scholarship with paid assistantship at a prestigious, private institution?” I had to be smart.
Had I not had a professional career prior to my graduate assistantship, or that final awesome year of my assistantship**, my resume would basically look like:
- Developed strong interpersonal relationship with Xerox 7000 series
- Punched holes on the left and gained spiral-binding experience
- Expertly handled staples, whether upper-left or upper-right
I lived my life jealous of other education graduate assistants at other higher education institutions. I would go to conferences and hear about the coolest research they were doing with their faculty mentors and how they were creating projects with departmental support to launch them into their careers after graduation. Believe me, I was crushing hard on Harvard. Oh, the plethora of social-justice-education collaborations available to sate my nerdy palette!
But I love my school.
And this is why I care so much about this problem. I am sure we’re not alone either. So, all of higher education, pay attention:
The way in which students are treated in the academic food chain is wasteful. The perspective academia has about the instantaneous moment at which someone changes from student to scholar wastes years of potential low-cost labor. Students would gladly put in effort for a little bit of experience. This experience could contribute to the available knowledge-base or otherwise positively impact education.
Faculty members have a huge case load of advising on top of their course load.*** They do not have the time to train graduate assistants to do tasks. Graduate assistants need to be strong critical thinkers and capable of self-directed fact finding.
Departments should charge experienced graduate assistants with interviewing graduate assistant applicants. Let students gain that human resources experience, and let them find the qualified candidates.
Regardless of the graduate assistants received, they are for the institutions to shape into their future scholars. Empower them on day one.
Faculty: at the first faculty meeting of the year, chat about some upcoming projects or wishlist research tasks. Develop a list of ideas before the graduate assistants arrive panting excitedly at the door.
Deans: make sure your departmental dollars are working for the department! Get those students out there in the world and show them off! Awesome, hardworking students bring good press, which brings more students. Recruitment TEAMWORK!
Everyone: Rethink intelligence. Empower students. Anyone can learn. This is how society will move forward.
*I was told no for three of the four years. Thank goodness for my last year experience. I had the best faculty mentor and look forward to our future collaborations.
**Yes, this did give me time to work on my literature review and dissertation while I was not doing work. However, much of my time not working I spent helping other students edit their papers or problem solve.
***To lighten their case load, my suggestion was the creation of a position to help students with their dissertation proposals and once they are ready for the focused advising, hand them off. This would give students accurate and level-appropriate feedback without taxing faculty members with the charge of cleaning up formatting, grammar, variables, or even the methodology.