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Graduate students balance socialization and responsibilities


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Graduate students constitute nearly a third of UNC’s enrolled population, and nearly a third of them said they do not see themselves as part of a broader campus community, according to the 2022 Healthy Minds Study conducted by the Division of Student Affairs.

“I’m not really that connected to campus,” Paula Castellanos, a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in social work, said. “I go there when I have to go to class, but it’s really hard, because I have so much going on, that I do wish I had more time to build that community.”

Castellanos’ program is only one year long, and its intense pace requires her to prioritize academic deadlines over socializing. She spends her free time with her partner and dog rather than building friendships with her classmates, who she said are not very connected socially.

For graduate students in longer programs, their cohort can be the first line of social connection.

Mathematics doctoral student Luke Conners, who serves as vice president for communications for the Graduate and Professional Student Government, said that community among students is often program specific.

“A lot of that stems from just the folks you end up spending a huge amount of time with early on in your grad school experience,” he said. “It’s very formative. You go through the same struggles together and you get to know each other, and then those bonds hopefully tend to stick around for a lot of folks.”

Simone Wilson, a doctoral student in the School of Education and the co-president of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association , said that the graduate community can even be concentration specific.

“Yeah, you can build community, but what happens when you don’t really like the people in your strand or your cohort?” she said. “And then you’re just kind of searching for friends elsewhere, which is really hard to do.”

Affiliate organizations like the BGPSA try to foster relationships across departments, Wilson said.

Second-year master’s student Alex Ladan, the director of community engagement for the GPSG, said that free food and events draw graduate students to campus.

Daniel Vélez Castano, co-president of the Latine Graduate and Professional Student Association and a doctoral student in earth, marine and environmental sciences, said the LGPSA fosters community support for those struggling to find it.

“The most important thing is to find that there are other people in the same situation,” he said. “So you could feel more like you aren’t alone.”

Castellanos said she would like to attend events put on by clubs and organizations at UNC, but she can’t leave class or work to make the weekday times.

It’s hard to coordinate adults in different life stages, Wilson said.

Wilson balances coursework, a puppy, BGPSA responsibilities and the maximum possible hours of employment as a TA, as well as working as a wellness consultant. So, she often spends her spare time with her own friends from school, rather than attending organized gatherings that feel more like work events.

“A lot of the grad student activities are designed for very young people, or single people or people who live close,” Mary Hamner, a religious studies doctoral student,  said. “And I’m 40, I’m married and I live in Raleigh instead of Chapel Hill, so I’m not going to go to a pizza party on a Saturday night.”

However, Hamner said that she’s not bothered by the gaps in social programming for graduates.

“I don’t need UNC to entertain me, you know?” she said. “I’m grateful when there are things, rather than mad when there aren’t.”

Instead of relying on academic events, some graduate students frequent local establishments with community programming. Conners said he attends trivia with a group of his peers weekly at Haw River Tap & Table. Hamner said she frequents Arcana Bar and Lounge, which is located in Durham and hosts events like movie nights, costume parties and a goth prom.

The graduate students also said they enjoy doing a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing or visiting local parks with their pets.

“The farther you get from campus, the density of undergrads to grads tends to shift, whereas when you get all the way out into Carrboro, if you run into students, it’s almost entirely going to be grad students,” Conners said.

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Wilson said she feels awkward socializing and going out in Chapel Hill, especially on Franklin Street. She said she and her friends prefer to attend restaurants, concerts, museums and clubs in Durham and Raleigh that they find more culturally diverse and accepting.

For Hamner, a full social life is crucial to academic success.

“I try to prioritize my social life and my personal life and just free time generally, because I figured out that I’m a much more happy and productive scholar if I also have strong personal relationships and feel like I have a social life,” she said.

@dthlifestyle |

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