Why wait until graduation? Building resilience during crises must include re-imagining academia and the role of graduate students


Prativa Baral

Johns Hopkins School of Public Health

Jasmine Mah

Department of Medicine, Dalhousie University

A headshot of an indian and a east asian woman pasted together.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate students around the world stepped up and directly became involved in their communities. From conducting COVID-19 PCR tests during a time of testing capacity shortages (Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, USA) to communicating changing science to lay audiences to volunteering at pop-up testing sites (Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada); there are countless examples of graduate students who stepped up to contribute to the pandemic response, at a time when their skill sets were most needed. Though academia in “normal-times” may frown upon the blurring of lines between university and community – with countless anecdotal examples of students being told by their advisors to not spend time and effort outside of the lab – it is time for us to reimagine academia into one that includes a more inclusive definition of community and engaged citizenship. 

According to Statistics Canada, only 5% of Canadians aged 25-64 years have a master’s degree or higher. While many graduate students report feeling inadequate and having imposter syndrome, this population is highly motivated, skilled, and resourced to enact change. During an international crisis, this trifecta of motivation, skills, and resources is an untapped resource. This, combined with a certain level of flexibility in graduate schedules, provides a unique opportunity for graduate students to contribute to crisis responses, work in different settings, and in turn, build numerable skills that are likely to be transferable in a constantly evolving context. 

There are real opportunities for governments to build on the known benefits of experiential learning in academic settings. For example, why not develop a “Student Service Corps”; a nation-wide database of available graduate students which can be mobilized at a moment’s notice during crises, matching skill sets to geography and needs? There is no need to reinvent the wheel here – existing infrastructure like Canada Service Corps and the Federal Student Work Program already exist for students – we are simply proposing building on these and re-imaging their use in a new and innovative way. This addition would allow academic institutions, and governments, to be more agile and respond to crisis needs rapidly, a much-needed fixture of resilience. Because graduate students are dispersed across the country, this would also help communicate changing information directly to many communities. 

COVID-19 demonstrated that during crises, our institutions lack agility. To remain relevant, academic institutions must respond to issues of international importance because numerous crises – including the ongoing pandemic and the climate related disasters – are looming. We think that ultimately, academia should not simply be about theory development and knowledge generation; during crises, there is a real need to bridge the gap between knowledge and implementation, and graduate students can play a powerful bridging role here.

Beyond crises, this reimagined role for graduate students can be framed as a true investment in students because it is beneficial to them too: exposure to non-academic settings and entrepreneurship, developing important skills such as pivoting, communicating appropriately, liaising, and prioritizing resources – all of this will allow graduate students to flourish regardless of their professional trajectories. What is most important here is that academic institutions allow students to explore these non-traditional routes, particularly during crises when students can be key in determining a response’s trajectory. 

So, to academic institutions we say – why not add this type of involvement of graduate students into existing graduate curriculums? Why ask them to wait until they have graduated to be involved “in the real world”? There is a whole world outside of academia that needs the skills, commitment, and dedication of graduate students – and unless it is included in university curriculums, this will only benefit certain groups of students. This discourse cannot forget that availability of time and resources to take on additional non-academic endeavors requires a certain level of privilege that many graduate students do not have. This is why we are focusing on the need for academic institutions to provide systems that allow graduate students to make the jump – for graduate students to help the community and in turn receive academic credit or payment for their work. 

In summary, the international crises we have faced – and will continue to face – have demonstrated that we need to be flexible and adaptable. Fundamentally, this means that our institutions must also be ready to change. One small and realistic step that can lead towards that flexibility is not just allowing graduate students to be involved in their communities in response to crises but instead, taking a step further to encourage and promote their involvement. A win for students, a win for building more resilience in our societies.