The University Record, October 22, 1996

Cantor stresses need to build network
during graduate studies

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations

 

Networking will be an important part of your future success, Rackham Graduate School Dean Nancy Cantor told students attending a forum last week that focused on issues confronting women in graduate school.

"The old boys network always has been important. We need to build a strong old girls network," said Cantor, who cited the Sisters Network for Women Computer Scientists as an example of the power of networking. That group helped change the culture for women in computer science, she said.

Perceptions of the campus climate for women graduate students varied widely. Some women, particularly those in small, almost all-male programs, reported experiencing hostility and discriminatory treatment. A number of women said that they felt isolated, excluded from professional opportunities and social life in their programs or departments.

"Numbers really do matter," Cantor said. "You need a critical mass for a sense of safety and so you can be you rather than being seen as representing a particular group."

Angela Balla, a first-year Ph.D. student in English, was one of several women who shared positive experiences they have had since coming to Michigan. Balla recounted the Department of English's efforts to involve new students, from arranging campus visits last spring to hosting a series of "capers" in September. Comparing the get-togethers with Greek rush parties, Balla said new students were invited to several capers so they could get acquainted with each other and with students who are further along in their programs.

Audra Bartley, a graduate student in the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, said she, too, feels fortunate that her program schedules brown-bag lunches, alumni lectures and other opportunities for new students to get to know each other, faculty and professionals working in the field.

She noted that each year second-year students plan a community outreach trip for members of the incoming class to a different city for a behind-the-scenes tour with local officials. This fall they spent four days in Baltimore; members of the group were notably more friendly and cohesive after the trip, she said.

Attending national meetings is another great way to bond with faculty and students, offered Nichol Gilding, a graduate student in biological anthropology who also has found her department accepting and supportive of women.

Cantor agreed. "I urge you to go to conferences. Don't wait until you're presenting a paper. Participating in national meetings is one way to feel part of a larger community of scholars," said Cantor, who noted that programs, departments and the graduate school have some discretionary travel funds for these kinds of opportunities.

Jeanne Sklar, a graduate student in history, suggested going "on lots and lots of coffee dates. Even if people say contradictory things, you'll learn something." Sklar, who comes from Philadelphia and sometimes finds Midwesterners almost "too friendly" because they say hello to strangers, says professors and students here welcome invitations to go out for coffee.

Jayne London, program representative in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and in the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, plans to schedule another forum for women graduate students next term and to organize an electronic conference so the women can begin building their networks.

At the beginning of the Oct. 10 forum, London said: "We value all of your experiences. We want to know what's working well to encourage and support you, and we also want to hear what isn't working well. People here are interested in seeing that you successfully complete your Rackham program. We want you to be full and equal partners in every step."

Thanking the women for participating, Cantor invited follow-up conversations. "Be very critical of us, honest and open. Tell us things that would make a big difference. We need people who are very straight with us," she said.

Graduate students who would like to participate in Rackham's electronic conference for women, join a planning committee for future activities or comment on their experiences at Michigan can contact London by e-mail at jplondon@umich.edu or by calling 647-6341.