SIA builds community, finds success during unique fall semester (Part 1)

SIA students on a hike in State College

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – SIA has faced many challenges this fall—including acclimating to a new learning environment in the face of a global pandemic, heightened calls for racial justice and equity, and a highly contentious presidential election. But the school has also had many victories: finding new ways to foster connections and support, continuing to publish impactful, interdisciplinary research, and ensuring a diverse and inclusive for environment for all students. With the end of the semester approaching, SIA students, faculty, and staff reflected on how they were able to build community and find success amidst unprecedented circumstances.

Building Community

SIA prides itself on fostering a close-knit program in which students, faculty, and staff can build a strong sense of camaraderie. Remote instruction and social distancing policies as a result of the pandemic made community building especially challenging, but the school was able to find creative ways to continue developing a “we are” spirit.

“Understandably, a lot of time and attention was devoted to making sure classroom instruction remained top-notch in a hybrid learning environment,” said Scott Gartner, SIA director and professor of international affairs, “but it is also important to us to create a vibrant community and strong support structures, both of which contribute to students’ success in the program and after graduation. The entire SIA family—students, faculty, alumni, and staff—banded together to come up with innovative solutions to that challenge.”

The school organized several student wellness activities, based on suggestions from current students, including two hiking trips to local trails, a mindfulness and stress management session, and a yoga and relaxation session.

SIA students on a hike in State College 2
SIA students and staff participated in two hiking trips to local trails. IMAGE: Channalyn Tek

In addition to typical office hours, several SIA professors participated in virtual “coffee chats” to connect with students in a more informal setting, and Director Gartner and Associate Director Elizabeth Ransom offered “walk and talk” office hours at the Penn State Arboretum.

Students helped each other in numerous ways:

  • second-year SIA students hosted “Grad School Survival 101,” consisting of four one-hour virtual panels throughout the month of September designed to help first-year students transition to graduate school;
  • a buddy system paired two first-year students together for a two-week period each month to help facilitate new friendships;
  • and a peer mentor program paired groups of first-year students under the guidance of second-year students who could help them acclimate to life at Penn State and SIA.

SIA buddy system
SIA implemented a buddy system that paired first-year students together. Clockwise, from top-left: Joshua Flores and Leorah McGinnis; Greta Sefu and Nathan Christman; Jessica Ojala and Adam VanGorder; and Frank Cobs and Mikaela Walker. IMAGE: Penn State

The SIA Student Government Association (SGA) hosted virtual social hours each month, arranged an outing to Harner Farm, and organized a fundraiser that raised over $500 for CentreSafe, a local nonprofit that empowers survivors of sexual violence, relationship violence, and stalking.

All told, students took a prominent role in developing a strong sense of community.

“During remote learning, it became even more important to build rapport with our cohort and for students to lean on each other for support,” said Channalyn Tek, a master’s candidate in the SIA Class of 2021 who is also an SIA peer adviser, student ambassador, research assistant, and teaching assistant. “Although the pandemic has affected people differently, when it comes to our graduate studies we are all going through the same thing, and no one understands that better than us.”

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

In addition to the pandemic, SIA was impacted by burgeoning calls for racial justice and equity that echoed across the United States. In response, the SIA and Penn State Law community released a statement against racism, signed by more than 500 students, alumni, faculty, and staff. SIA also created a list of concrete action steps as a way to maintain transparency, accountability, and commitment to working toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“SIA is deeply committed to making progress on diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism,” said Dean Hari Osofsky. “These concrete actions steps and statement emerged from active listening to our community, and I am grateful for the leadership of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni in developing our approach and working to implement it.”

As part of the action steps, SIA created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Working Group consisting of two faculty, two staff, two students, and Penn State Law Associate Dean for DEI Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia. The working group helped launch a webpage dedicated to DEI updates and resources, is nearing completion of a new reporting process to handle bias-related complaints, and has initiated discussions with faculty on how to better address cultural-sensitive topics in the classroom.

“SIA is committed to ensuring our school is an inclusive and welcoming space,” said Claudia Prieto, director of academic advising and student affairs and co-chair of the DEI Working Group along with Associate Director Ransom. “Our work on implementing the DEI actions steps reflects the commitment and collective efforts of our faculty, students, and staff.”

SIA DEI Working Group
SIA's DEI Working Group includes (clockwise, from top-left) co-chair Claudia Prieto, co-chair Elizabeth Ransom, Penn State Law Associate Dean for DEI Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, faculty representative Eleanor Brown, staff representative Grant Littke, and student representatives Sherrine Boseman-Rives and Adriana Rivera. IMAGE: Penn State

In connection with its DEI efforts, the school launched Racial Injustice Globally, a virtual speaker series that examines the impacts of race and racism in various contexts across the world. In the fall, topics included youth inequality in post-Apartheid South Africa, with guest speaker Dr. Ariane De Lannoy; racial disparities in police use of deadly force, with guest speaker Dr. Ben Jones; and an examination of race in connection with the 2020 presidential election, with Dr. Matt A. Barreto, a pollster for the Biden-Harris campaign.

Due to student interest, the school also created a DEI Student Advisory Group of four current students who will take the lead in developing student programming and initiatives related to DEI. The group is currently working to create an official DEI officer position on the SGA Board.

As part of DEI student programming, the advisory group and SGA are co-sponsoring a planned series of discussion events. The first event, What Now? A Post-Election Dialogue for BIPOC Students, took place on November 10.

The DEI Working Group and Student Advisory Board are standing committees that will continue to meet and work toward achieving SIA’s DEI goals.

Adapting and Finding Success

Thanks to the efforts of students, faculty, and staff, and new DEI initiatives, SIA continues to forge a strong community outside the classroom. But the educational experience of SIA students remains a top priority. In part two, we take a look at how SIA students were able to find academic success this fall with the help of an adaptive and supportive environment.