3 Questions: Ian Waitz and Blanche Staton on MIT’s continuing commitment to graduate students

Despite the pandemic, the Office of the Vice Chancellor has continued to make progress on efforts to enhance the MIT graduate student experience.

Q: How has MIT responded to the needs of graduate students, given the challenges of the pandemic?

A: The pandemic has been tough on everyone. So much of what makes MIT special is the vibrancy of the campus. Fortunately, our phased reopening has been very successful, but there are still necessary restrictions and many of our students are living elsewhere. We all long for the day when we can once again see folks walking and biking across campus, bump into a friend or colleague, or strike up an impromptu conversation at the food trucks.

Although we have continued to make steady progress on a number of our priorities, given the urgency of the pandemic we’ve focused more attention on graduate students’ immediate needs: financial security; addressing the unique challenges facing our international student population; and easing the transition to online learning.

Short and long-term financial distress among graduate students, including financial needs due to the pandemic, have been a top priority. These efforts built on our work in 2019 with the Graduate Student Council (GSC) to better understand and address acute financial insecurity faced by some doctoral students. This work led to a commitment from each school to implement policies and practices that reduce financial insecurity among specific populations of doctoral students, namely those on nine-month appointments or with nonresident status.

More recently, we’ve partnered with the schools to try to meet the needs of graduate students who lost summer funding, either through work opportunities or other sources. We have also created three new sources of financial support: short-term emergency funding, doctoral student long-term financial hardship funding, and a need-blind pilot program, the MIT Grant for Graduate Students with Children. The short-term emergency fund situated in OGE has disbursed over $298,000 to help graduate students with the loss of 2020 summer funding opportunities, housing, moving costs, and other basic living expenses, like food and utilities, from the onset of the pandemic. Our process to identify doctoral students in financial hardship has helped 14 students with financial assistance, and the grant for graduate student parents disbursed 72 awards of between $2,000 and $4,000 last fall and is continuing this spring.

We’re rolling out a new program this spring that aims to help students who want to change advisors or research groups — whether due to an unhealthy advising situation, a shift in research interests, or other reasons. Beyond transitional funding, the Guaranteed Transitional Support program establishes department-based transitional support coordinators who can guide students through the process.

We have also responded to the unique challenges facing our international students. Last summer and fall, MIT reviewed and approved over 800 requests for students to pursue their appointments from outside the U.S. Many of these requests were for students who remained in the U.S at the start of the pandemic, but who wished to return to their home countries to pursue their studies and appointments. MIT also took a leading role in a successful lawsuit challenging a federal government policy that would have impacted many international students’ ability to study in the U.S. if their classes were fully online.

For spring 2021, we had to modify our approach to remote international appointments due to the increasing complexities in U.S. and foreign regulations, the fluid pandemic conditions, and other factors. We have worked very closely with students, departments, and the International Students Office to try to find solutions on a case-by-case basis. Fortunately, we have managed to resolve almost every appointment, enabling students who need to remain remote from the U.S. to do so. Moving forward, we do not anticipate having the same flexibility, but we will continue to monitor the issue closely.

Last, but certainly not least, we ran a Student Success Coaching Program last spring to help students adjust to the unfamiliar, virtual environment we suddenly found ourselves in. The program matched faculty and staff with students, providing much-needed support and resources for the spring term as we transitioned to our new normal. Fourteen graduate programs opted-in to the initiative and over 1,100 graduate students participated.

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