By SUSAN JONES
Amanda Godley wasn’t new to graduate studies when she became the vice provost of graduate studies last July, but the new job has definitely expanded her understanding of the University.
She is spending half of her time in the Office of the Provost to fill the position left by Nathan Urban, who became provost of Lehigh University last year.
The other half of the time is spent on her job as a professor in the School of Education, where she still has a number of doctoral advisees and active grants and research projects.
In an effort to improve communication and transparency, Godley said one of her priorities is a new website that will be a one-stop shop for all information related to graduate studies. The new site is expected to be operational by this summer.
She also has open house office hours each month. “What I really like is that each month I seem to hear from different students,” she said. “My favorite is when the students say, ‘I actually have nothing to talk about I just wanted to meet the vice provost’ or ‘I just wanted to talk about my program.’ A lot of the times, they’re programs I know very little about. It’s just super fun to find out about different students’ experiences across the University.”
The University Times recently interviewed Godley about her first year in the provost’s office. The conversation has been edited for conciseness.
Why did you want to do this job?
That’s a really good question. I’ve been involved in graduate education for my whole career at the University, because the School of Education has quite a few graduate programs and not as many undergrad. With my collaborations with faculty from other schools and units, I got to know a lot of graduate students from other schools and programs as well. I think I was really interested in thinking about graduate students across the University, how different parts of the University enacted graduate studies in different ways. But also, of course, I wanted to be part of a bigger change beyond my program and department, and think more broadly about how we can ensure that every student has a great graduate education and feels like they belong at Pitt and loves Pitt for the rest of their life.
What’s been your biggest surprise moving into an administrative role?
I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s been a surprise, but it’s been really nice to get to know people in units of the University I never really thought about very much before, like parking and transportation or the CFOs office or payroll. What I found is really just very smart people who are trying to work across units to improve things for faculty, for students, for the University. I feel like I’ve met just all these amazing people at Pitt. And that’s been a benefit of the job that I didn’t predict. I knew there were good people, but I didn’t realize just how great that would be.
I think I would say that the other part that again wasn’t a surprise but was just really something nice to learn was the collaboration in the Office of the Provost. The vice provosts and the provost, we meet together fairly often, and there’s just kind of a spirit of discussion and collaborative problem solving that is great, especially for someone new to a position. To be able to go to your colleagues and say, “Hey, I’m trying to figure out this complicated issue,” and to have people really take that seriously and apply their experience and intelligence to it, that’s been really nice.
How has that been since you’re all working remotely?
A lot of Zoom. I have heard people say that they really miss being able to just pop your head in someone else’s office and say, “Hey, do you have a quick sec.” It’s harder to do that now that we have to schedule a Zoom, even though it’s only a 15-minute Zoom. I have no experience being in person in the office, but I am looking forward to what other people have told me about those quick, touching base moments.
What do you think one of the biggest challenges has been during your first year, other than the pandemic?
I think that the biggest challenge is how diverse graduate studies is at the University of Pittsburgh. The challenge is both getting to know all the different programs and ways of doing things, and then also designing initiatives or solutions that work for all those diverse programs. Even today, I need to touch base with a graduate associate dean, just to be sure that the solution we have in mind is going to work for her students. And I don’t think that challenge is going to end, and I don’t think it’s an inappropriate one. There are lots of different programs in graduate schools. A one-year teacher education masters and a Ph.D. in engineering are different in a lot of ways. The students come into them with different goals; they have different needs; they’re here for different lengths of time. I think that’s a common challenge in graduate studies and one that I’m trying to tackle first by really just getting to know as many people in programs as I can.
I know the numbers have been down for graduate students. What role is your office playing in the effort to try to recruit more graduate students?
A central one. That’s one of our main priorities. That slide in enrollment is at least a 10-year trend, it’s not something new. It’s going to take a lot of concerted strategic work to reverse it. And we’ve been starting down that road this year, even as we’ve had to deal with pandemic-related things as they’ve come up. Two people were just hired in University Communications who are going to work specifically with the grad team. We’re going to be able to have market analyses, and I think that’s going to be a really great step in the right direction.
We’re thinking about different subgroups of graduate and professional students right now, too. We have international students who may be having trouble finding visas, who may wonder if the United States is safe right now, if they come from a country in Asia. Right now, to help recruit students for the fall, the kind of issues we need to solve may be different for different groups of students. There may be other students who wonder what the job market’s going to look like in the field that they’re going into. Especially on the international front, we’re paying really close attention to things like visas; we’re having a meeting soon to talk about coordinating support for international students. We’ve been thinking about the various needs of students.
One of the big issues that Nathan Urban had to deal with was the grad student unionization effort. That seems to be dead now, but what lessons do you think Pitt has learned from that effort? What issues need to be addressed with grad students, particularly teaching assistants?
I think some of the bigger issues haven’t come up as much this year because there have been other pandemic-related issues related to graduate student appointments or studies. I was very happy that we early on said that TA/TFs could choose whether or not to be in the classroom. That’s something that many of our peer universities did not do, and I think that was not a great decision on their part. We had to explain to departments why we made that choice, but I think that was a really good choice that the University made to treat graduate students and instructors with the same kind of care for their safety as we would for faculty.
In terms of lessons, because I really wasn’t a part of the intense union activity, I think one of the things I would say is that transparency and clear communication from graduate studies are very important. Sometimes I think students misunderstand what the policies are, such as what parental leave they can get or what rights they have in our policies. We’re revamping our whole graduate studies’ website to try to provide that greater transparency of the policies and the kind of support that we have now.
And we’re really excited for that. We’ll have a centralized place where we’ll list internal and external fellowships. We really are excited to have one central place where graduate students can find the information they need and can find the support they need. As we dig into what content we want on this page, we’re discovering things that are not as out in the open as they should be, like certain fellowships that could really be advertised more so we can get more student applicants. That’s a big priority of ours, to get that website out.
What else have you learned in your year in the provost’s office?
I think I’ve learned a lot about clear communication, both from times that our communication was clear and times that it wasn’t.
I think the other thing I’ve learned, because I have spent a lot of time with graduate students, is that just as we’ve come to see undergrad education as a holistic experience — one that’s not just in-class experiences, plus research, plus advising and internships, but actually involves this kind of mental well-being, sense of belonging and community on campus, sense of place in the city — that same holistic mentality is so important for graduate and professional students, too
I think maybe they were more open about it and maybe realized it more this year because it was such a hard year. So many students were isolated. That was certainly a lesson I learned this year. As much as my position is focused on academics, the graduate studies team also really aims to take a very holistic understanding of students’ experience. For instance, we had been hearing so much about students feeling isolated, so for the past month, we ran a fitness challenge in collaboration with the Graduate Student Government. We had over 320 graduate students participate. Students were texting people on my team saying, “You know, I’m getting outside for the first time.” Callan Rowe, on my team, helped. People that didn’t have teams, she helped connect them to teams to get to know new people.
That’s just one example of thinking about graduate students holistically. If they are isolated, if they are having trouble with self-care because of the pandemic, that’s something that we can do this for, and ultimately that’ll help their academics too.
What are your other priorities in the coming year?
In addition to increasing enrollments, one of our biggest priorities is diversity, equity and inclusion, and we’re setting goals for increasing the number of underrepresented students in our graduate and professional programs.
On Thursday (April 13), we are going to have the second in a series called Perspectives of Black Faculty, which is aimed at undergrad and graduate students of color to be able to hear from Black faculty in a particular discipline, about both the programs in their school but also their career paths. We have a number of other initiatives that will get started next year to help all students feel a sense of belonging and inclusion at the University, as well as to increase the diversity of our students.
If there’s a third priority, it really goes into that holistic support for graduate students and mental health and wellness.
The student emergency fund has continued, and we have kept a close eye on the applications we’ve received to see if there are particular types of needs that we’re seeing pop up more among graduate students, and we haven’t really seen a pattern. The applications are declining, but I think that safety net for all graduate, and as well as undergrad, students is really important.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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