Dale Trevino, associate dean for diversity and inclusion in the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University, knows that when it comes to graduate students, sometimes it's all about the food.
At a dinner reception held at the Friend Center on Tuesday, Sept. 20, Trevino set a tone of conviviality as he welcomed new and returning graduate students. Indicating a long buffet table filled with platters of vegetable lasagna, pulled pork, grilled honey-garlic chicken, strawberry goat cheese salad, desserts and more, he said: "We hope this will be an exciting year for you. We have some remarks and some introductions — and then we're going to eat! But we're going to eat hopefully with people you don't know and give you a chance to meet faculty members and our staff."
Julie Yun, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School, called the reception "an opportunity for us to celebrate difference and to help build relationships which will foster engagement, dialogue and a sense of connection to an inclusive campus community. We also want to highlight the diversity represented in the University community and build bridges to support and offer resources as we commemorate the start of another academic year," she said.
Attendees included faculty, staff and more than 35 graduate students representing a wide swath of academic fields including sociology, electrical engineering, history of science, computer science, East Asian studies, English, molecular biology and more.
Talmo Pereira and Jamal Williams, second-year doctoral candidates in neuroscience, noted some of the ways Princeton welcomes and supports graduate students.
"One of the reasons I chose to come to Princeton was because of the amazing, incredible environment and collaborative atmosphere," said Pereira, who is from São Paulo, Brazil. "I've always heard these stories of people being in their 'lab-dungeons' as they progress through graduate school, and that's the furthest thing from what I've encountered here.
"I have a very easy time forming both a professional and personal connection with virtually everyone within our department — and particularly exciting, across different departments," Pereira said, adding that he and Williams "have a bunch of friends who are physicists and mathematicians, despite our working in very separate parts of campus."
Williams said, "At events like this and other events, I meet people who are open to being friends with me — people who are also interested in improving diversity across academic departments."
Addressing the group, who were seated at round tables bedecked in bright orange tablecloths and an inviting display of wrapped chocolates, Sanjeev Kulkarni, dean of the Graduate School and a professor of electrical engineering, asked the new graduate students in the room to raise their hands.
"All the returning students will tell you what a special place Princeton is, not just academically but in terms of the resources that are here," he said. "Everything about Princeton is designed to enable you to thrive in your graduate work. Our staff is here to help you make the most of your time and get the most out of your academic experience."
Reflecting on his own experience, Kulkarni said: "The journey through graduate school is rarely a linear one — research has its ups and downs, research interests change over time and career aspirations evolve. All three of those things happened to me and typically happen to all students. But the folks around this room are here to support you throughout that journey."
Michele Minter, the vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, said a newly formed committee of the University's trustees — focused specifically on diversity and inclusion — visited campus this week for their first meeting.
"The trustees have always paid attention to diversity but they feel so strongly that they have created a new committee to work on it," Minter said. "They and President Eisgruber have identified two topics that are high priority: the student experience, and the faculty pipeline. And graduate students are at the center of both of these issues.
"I know it can sometimes feel on a college campus that everything is about undergraduates. I want to assure you there is a lot of thought being put into what happens for graduate students," she said.
Unpacking the details of an environment that "sets up students for success," Minter noted the new and pending appointments of new assistant deans for diversity initiatives at the Graduate School — one for humanities and social sciences, and one for natural sciences. She also discussed new programs, including one to support dissertation writing, and campus climate committees being formed in academic departments to provide diversity and inclusion support and mentoring for faculty and graduate students.
Minter encouraged the graduate students to provide input. "If you have feedback about what we should be doing — things that aren't working and things that are working — please share your thoughts and ideas with us as we continue to roll out programming," she said.
Minter also voiced another request. "We're at a complicated time in our country. You are here to be scholars but I hope you will also be scholar-activists in whatever ways and for whatever causes are meaningful to you," she said. "In this very partisan environment, we really need people with the kind of maturity and intellectual rigor that you are learning at Princeton … I hope that you will bring that scholar-activist attitude to your life here."
Vivian Chang, a second-year MPA student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, agreed. "That's exactly how I feel," she said. "I think students here are very driven academically and personally and that shows in the way we create spaces for people to express themselves — including the Graduate Women of Color Caucus and the gender policy networking group in the Wilson School."
She said that these and other student-run organizations that focus on a variety of concerns, interests and issues demonstrate that graduate students at Princeton don't think of their time here as only about academics. "It's a continuation of whatever life you were living before," she said. "It's not like 'I'm entering the 'Ivy Tower' and I'm locking myself in'; it's definitely seeing ourselves as global citizens as well as citizens of the local environment."
Chang is one of four diversity fellows — a newly created group designed to act as a liaison between the Graduate School administration and graduate students. Another diversity fellow, Alliya Akhtar, a fourth-year doctoral student in geosciences, said she has found camaraderie outside the Graduate School as well.
"One of the things I didn't realize I would find when I came to Princeton — and I was very pleasantly surprised that I did — was a large support system in unexpected places," she said. "I wasn't a religious person when I came to Princeton and I just stumbled upon the Office of Religious Life. Everyone there is so welcoming and incredibly warm and willing to hear about anything you feel or say or do. It's nice to have a space that isn't related to academics and yet it's part of Princeton. It's important to realize that graduate school is more than just books and labs and data and getting a degree; it's about other experiences too."
Before inviting students to head to the buffet table, Trevino asked all the members of the Graduate School's diversity and inclusion team to stand but said, with a broad grin, that he would not give their names. Instead, he encouraged the students to fill their plates and mingle and meet the staff themselves.