Category Archives: Graduate Assistant Fables

Another Kind of Assistantships and Lessons for International Graduate Students

Yes, our group introduced different kinds of graduate assistantships this week, whether teaching or researching, dealing with students or faculties. As an international graduate student, it’s not easy to get an full-time GA position before you actually enter this program. Obviously, choosing an international student as a graduate assistant before you meet he or she in person is taking a risk, as we have language barriers and cultural differences, which means we need to learn much more than American students and adapt to the totally strange environment.

Myself, a then non-journalsim major international student, didn’t have the ability or skills to get a GA position in journalism. However, luckily, I got a remission package which including a full tuition waiver and a 10-hour-per-week part-time job as a student worker in J school. Almost all the international students in our program got or will get this kind of remission package.

So, let talk about this 10-hour-per-week work that most international student did or will do. I am working for Professor Lois Raimondo, the Shott Chair of Journalism, who teaches photojournalism classes and does researches on Asian (especially Japanese and Chinese) photography (my background can contribute to this work). My job is collecting information about Japanese photographers (last semester) and Chinese photographers (this semester), which is the “research” part, covering classes for her when she is out of town, which is the “deal-with-students” part and the library part as ordering, borrowing and returning books and DVDs for her.

I believe it might fit all the Chinese students in our program that this job is an easier way for us to understand the “flow” of the assistantships and adapt to the American college life and also we can provide some help to J school. Personally, it also offers me a new world that I never saw before with the amazing photos, creative thoughts and different people, although I had some hard time during this year.

Studying and working in another country is not easy but worthy. Once you dare to start, you are half done.

Here are the tips for whoever want to study abroad or work abroad (whether for international students here or Americans who want to work in another country):

1. Respect other and their culture, and others will also respect you and your culture. That is the fastest way to adapt to the environment and will not make yourself at least unhappy.

2. Always ask for help when you have troubles. I believe most local people can understand your situation and are willing to help according to my experience. Trying to learn their language is a must to live in a strange environment.

3. Be nice. It’s good for them and also for yourself. That’s also why people are willing to help you out.

3. Find your community. When you are homesick, especially during the festival season, your community is like your home and your compatriots are your family.

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Graduate assistantships come in many flavors, and you have read about many of them already this week.  For my GA position, I work at West Virginia University’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.  Yes, that is a mouthful, and the gentlemen that hung each individual letter for the signs agree.  I watched them doing it, and they weren’t happy.

My specific role at the Statler College is to develop recruitment materials for graduate engineering programs, but I have also had the opportunity to participate in community outreach, advising, event planning, and undergraduate recruitment.  The “hard” sciences have never been a focus in my career, professional or academic, but working within the Statler College has been a surprisingly multi-faceted learning experience that has increased the quality and depth of my graduate school experience.  If your graduate degree falls outside of the hard sciences, here are _ reasons why you should consider a GA position within a hard science program, department, or college.

1. Networking.

Meeting new people is an important part of being a professional, and it could help land you a job (which we talked about last week).  By getting outside of your normal bubble, you have the opportunity to interact with different types of people that are connected to communities that you would otherwise have no access to.  In the future, this could lead to a job or a useful contact, giving you an edge over the competition that never explored other communities.

2. Interdisciplinary Education.

Your undergraduate program likely required you to take a slew of general education electives.  The reasoning behind these requirements as that exposure to other subjects beyond your specialty makes you a well-rounded citizen by providing more context and scope to your core material.  As a graduate student, it’s easy to shut out the rest of the academic world.  Working among scientists and engineers will allow you to continue that interdisciplinary education in an unofficial way.  It has benefited me, and I enjoy the change of pace.

3. Portfolio Building.

While the rest of your peers are filling their portfolios and resumes with clips and experiences that are often remarkably similar, you have the chance to do something different.  Any time you can add something unique to your resume, you should.

4. Tuition Waiver.

Paying for grad school sucks.  I would scrub toilets every day to pay for my education, so sitting at a desk writing about engineering is like a vacation.  I would do terrible terrible things for a tuition waiver, and let’s be honest, you would to.

The Behind-the-Scenes Work of a G.A.

Like Candace, I also have grad assistantship that deals with students and teaching. But, the difference is that I don’t actually teach. Instead, I grade papers, tests and quizzes; manage attendance; deal with hear from students who contest or challenge grades; and do a lot of the time-consuming work that professors don’t have time to do, since they’re busy doing their own research.

That’s a concept I didn’t understand when I came to WVU – why do professors need GAs anyway? I figured it was because they simply didn’t want to do some of the grunt work. However, now I realize that being a professor is at least a 60-hour-a-week position. So, the professor works 40 hours, teaching, planning lessons, designing assignments and tests and conducting research (which is part of the profession of the professor). The other 20 hours is then delegated to me. So, it makes sense for me to do all the grading, copies and other time-consuming work.

Anyway, back to the point – I came to grad school because I want to eventually be a professor and teach at a university. So, my GA experience has given me a lot of insight into the behind-the-scenes work of college courses. I came from a small college for undergrad, so a 40 to 50-person class was large there, but smaller at WVU. The sheer number of people at a larger university creates different challenges and red tape in assisting with classes.

First, it’s important to be firm with students as far as policy goes. To every rule there is an exception, but those really need to be few and far between. For example, if the syllabus says, “you have one week to challenge a grade,” that policy must be followed. This helps students become more proactive in managing grades, and helps you as a GA stay organized, as original assignments over a week old can be archived and better protected.

Also, try to accomplish as much as you can as early as you can. If it’s Friday, and 50 copies of a 15-page exam need to be done by Tuesday, do that as soon as possible. Likewise, incorporate time-saving tasks, like actively keeping track of attendance throughout the month instead of trying to add absence up at the end of the semester.

Third, keep any and all e-mails sent to you by students. That way, there is a record of communication if a student accuses the GA of not performing a certain task or responding to an e-mail.

Finally, if you have to grade papers that are subjective in nature, make sure to create a sort-of rubric for those papers. After reading 30 of 50, your brain may start to become mush. And, we’re in journalism school, so writing is important. It’s okay to dock grades for poor grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc.

Teaching the Teacher

As graduate students, we don’t qualify for many scholarships. Most of those are for undergraduates only. Instead, we qualify for something called graduate assistantships, which vary according to what they offer. But many include a full tuition waiver, as well as a semimonthly stipend (that means twice a month; bimonthly means every two months) in exchange for 20 hours of work per week. It’s safe to say that without this funding, I wouldn’t be able to afford my graduate degree.

But those graduate assistantships vary in work. Some of my fellow grad students grade papers, make copies, write press releases, etc. We essentially do whatever needs done. My GA position is unique in that it contains a couple different jobs. For those graduate students who have assistantships that also teach, they are sometimes called graduate teaching assistants or just teaching assistants. It’s just a more specific GA position. I fall in this category.

Other responsibilities include helping Dr. Britten when he solicits, assisting with an AEJMC newsletter and doing research. I’m lucky to have a GA position that really allows me to further my skills, rather than doing mindless tasks. In addition, I teach the lab portions of Dr. Britten’s journalism 210 class. This lab includes teaching Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Each semester, there are three sections and all are two hours long. That doesn’t account for answering emails outside of class, having additional office hours, preparing for lectures, and grading all the assignments for about 60 students each semester. While I have had some leadership experience in the past at the student newspaper, teaching is a whole new level.

On Boston University’s Center for Excellence & Innovation in Teaching website, they state that skills you learn include time management, multitasking, public speaking and managing people. Teaching has taught me to be more comfortable in front of a group, as well as be more confident. It has also taught me to think on my feet. You’d be amazed at the questions kids come up with. But with those great skills also come some challenges.

Teaching while being taught
It’s an odd experience being a student and simultaneously teaching. It’s a different line to straddle. When you’re teaching, you have full authority. You control what’s happening in the class. But when you’re in the classroom, you’re back to being a student – you have to put a different hat on. You have to be more submissive and open to learning. It’s a completely different mindset.

Students your age (or older)
When you’re teaching students who are around your same age, it’s sometimes difficult to get respect. In many cases, I’m only a year or two older than these kids. Why should they listen to me? Well, because they have to. I’ve also had the experience where I’ve had students older than me who don’t think they should listen to me. It’s a constant battle.

Being in the same classes
Can you imagine grading one student at 9 a.m. then having a class together with them a couple hours later? It’s awkward. You’re expected to be peers but then be an authority figure, and it increases that tension if you have to work on group projects. And guess what, that student might be grading you soon…

Boston University also gives some behaviors of good teachers – things like setting goals for learning, discussing progress and expect timeliness. These are ideal and sometimes tough to achieve. But rest assured, as they also have some tips on how to make your teaching experience a positive one. Many of these are common sense, but when you’re busy keeping 60 kids under control, it may be easy to forget.

Does anybody currently teach? Have any specific strategies or tips for getting started?

Research and responsibilities.

As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to land a job as a Graduate Assistant… a Graduate Research Assistant at that. I work 20 hours a week (currently spread out over four days) at WVU’s National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium, a facility that serves under WVU’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy.

The NAFTC specializes on facilitating educational programs that focus on alternative-fueled vehicles. Electric vehicles are a major emphasis of the curriculum, but the Consortium also advocates the advancement of fuel cell, hydrogen, natural gas, and biofuel as well. As someone from an arts background, the knowledge I’ve gained during my short time there has been pretty powerful, as I’m gaining some scientific perspective that I may not have if I were working in a different department.

Now that I’ve talked up my place of employment, let me tell you a little bit about what I do. GA’s are asked to work 20 hours a week, and in return are paid a stipend and are given a tuition waiver every semester. I’m lucky enough to have a position that runs through the summer, but as a consequence, I’m required to work during the times that other GA’s have off (like Christmas break, Spring Break, etc.).

My daily duties are pretty straightforward. The NAFTC has an enews page that outlines the most recent and relevant stories in the alternative fuel industry. It is my responsibility to research these stories, write about them, and post them to the site. This means signing up for industry newsletters, press releases, and Google Alerts. I’m responsible for writing at least 10-12 industry stories per month, two of those being international stories. When I first started, one of my responsibilities was keeping up with the NAFTC’s Facebook and Twitter pages, but a new full-time staff member has recently taken over so that the pages could be updated daily (as I’m not at the office every day).

Are you lucky enough to have a GA position? I’m curious to hear about the responsibilities other GA’s have.