Published on 2013/11/25
Creating Community for Graduate Students (Part 1)
Creating a community for graduate and non-traditional students is critical to provide them a space to come together and connect with each other and their institution.
After 15 years of working with graduate students, what I know for sure is they need love too. Allow me to put the statement into context and further unpack the loaded word “love” as it pertains to servicing graduate students in higher education today.

At an annual symposium in 2009, Scott Collard and Lucinda Covert-Vail from New York University suggested there is no such thing as “a single graduate student type.” The presenters found the needs of graduate students vary but, in general, converge around the areas of community, student services and space.[1]

In Search of Community

Although that symposium took place nearly five years ago, survey research in 2011 (published in the Continuing Higher Education Review) and 2013 (my unpublished dissertation in progress) on graduate students enrolled at Johns Hopkins University agrees that a sense of community is important to graduate students.

A sense of community has been defined by Westheimer and Kahne as the result of interaction and deliberation by people brought together by similar interests and common goals.[2] The most essential elements of community include: mutual interdependence among members, sense of belonging, connectedness, spirit, trust, interactivity, common expectations, shared values and goals and overlapping histories among members.[3] In fact, research has shown the development of a sense of community is linked to student satisfaction.[4] However, though graduate students may be more inclined to infer they “didn’t come to graduate school to make friends” (as several respondents mentioned in my doctoral study interviews), they may still use language such as a desired “connection with my classmates and faculty” or “build my network” instead of the classic term “community” to describe their sentiment. Networks, however, are sub-communities and those engaged in social and professional networks have an opportunity to build a sense of community as a result of their participation.

A student satisfaction survey conducted at Johns Hopkins University in 2010 also suggested online graduate students in the advanced academic programs of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences had a strong sense of community — interestingly, stronger than students enrolled in on-ground graduate programs in the same School at Johns Hopkins. Graduates of this online master’s program also demonstrated a willingness to give as alumni donors as a result of their sense of community and satisfaction with the program.[5]

Because of the importance of “community” and its positive influence on student satisfaction, universities are encouraged not to consider graduate students as outliers and to intentionally program events and efforts to bolster their sense of community.[6] Faculty and administrators who work with online graduate students may also use this opportunity to embed community building opportunities into the online program. For example, the museum studies program at Johns Hopkins University uses a cyber café to engage graduate students and holds virtual alumni and career development events as well.

Investing time and some financial resources into a well-delivered orientation program for graduate students may also prove beneficial. New beginnings are important and setting a tone that supports camaraderie and community are critical first steps. Don’t assume your graduate students are too busy for orientation, or that they only want the required policies of the School or program during orientation — it’s simply not true. Graduate students want to network and build social and professional communities. For many students, graduate school can be both intellectually challenging and socially isolating.[7] As a result, a sense of community can be particularly important to the overall experience.

This was the first of a two-part series on the importance of creating a sense of community for non-traditional students. To read the conclusion of this series, please click here.

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[1] Scott Collard and Lucinda Covert-Vail, Meeting Graduate Student Needs. Presentation for the RLG Partnership Annual Symposium (June 3, 2009). Accesible at

[2] Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, “Building School Communities: An Experienced-Based Model,” Phi Delta Kappan Vol. 75 (4), 1993.

[3] Alfred Rovai, “Building Sense of Community at a Distance,” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning Vol. 3(1), 2002.

[4] Ibid

[5] Monica Moody Moore, Doctoral Dissertation (as yet unpublished), University of Pennsylvabia Graduate School

[5] Rovai (2002)

[6] Jodie Kern-Bowen and Rick Gardner, “Creating Campus Community for Graduate Studies Through Programs, Services and Facilities,” The Bulletin (March 2010). Accessible at

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Readers Comments

Tawna Regehr 2013/11/25 at 10:12 am

I’m really looking forward to the second part of this! It’s interesting to think of community-building as a retention strategy. So often, we look to strategies that focus on the individual, and rarely consider how we can turn that group of individuals into a self-sustaining, supportive unit.

Helen C 2013/11/25 at 11:41 am

I agree with Moore’s points about the importance of community building. One challenge my institution has run into is that many of our graduate students access their programs online, thus limiting their opportunities for peer interaction. We’ve tried message boards and live chats, but feel they don’t foster the level or quality of engagement we are aiming for.

Ideas on how to address this challenge would be much appreciated.

Tyrese Banner 2013/11/25 at 1:50 pm

Pre-enrollment outreach should focus on students’ opportunities for building community, but such outreach should describe it in a way that makes sense to prospective students. As Moore says, most graduate students won’t say they’re looking to “make friends” or have “social opportunities.”

Ursula V.F. 2013/11/25 at 5:51 pm

To address the comment above about engaging students who are mainly enrolled online, we ran into a similar at my institution. Instead of online students, we mainly had part-time graduate students who spent very little time on campus. We came up with a pilot to build engagement into our part-time programs–and I don’t mean just having breakout groups or class discussions. We organized and actively promoted faculty-student pub nights. That got pretty good uptake, although we heard from a few non-drinking students who didn’t participate (we took that as a good sign that they at least had the desire to). We arranged a few mandatory field trips (e.g. art museum for the museum studies program) to further encourage social interaction, because we saw the value that those relationships could have in an academic environment.

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