ACUI’s regional communities serve as geographical connection points for association engagement, providing opportunities for member education and connection. On Thursday, July 20, 2023, ACUI Region VII offered an excellent blueprint of regional engagement through its second Grad and Grow Institute, this time hosted at the Montclair State University Student Center.
“The goal was simple — to create a program for first- and second-year graduate students and their supervisors that would help build community, enhance skills, and promote the support that ACUI offers,” said Antonio Talamo, assistant director for student center & commuter life at Montclair. Talamo is also the volunteer educational coordinator for ACUI Region VII.
The student center sponsored the event, offering space, lunch, and a coffee break at no cost for Montclair students and staff. Non-students and staff were charged $30 for the experience, which lasted from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Grad students were not required to be accompanied by an advisor or supervisor, though some were. “We had graduate students without their supervisors and supervisors without their graduate students,” Talamo said.
Over 60 graduate students and professionals attended the institute, including participants from Rowan University, West Chester University, Rutgers University–Camden, Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Temple University, Monmouth University, St. Peter’s University, Stockton University, New York University, and Ramapo College.
General sessions included an opening statement from Montclair State University Vice President of Student Affairs Dawn Soufleris, a crash course in networking, a session on determining one’s core values, and lunch with ACUI President Neela Patel. The Grad and Grow Institute also offered a customized curriculum for the three attendee types: first-year graduate students, second-year graduate students, and supervisors.
“When we first started working on this project, we were only thinking about first- and second-year graduate students,” Talamo said. “As the planning advanced, we thought it would be a great opportunity to help engage their supervisors in conversations about supporting their graduate students. That’s when we realized we would have three different tracks coming together.”
The supervisor curriculum included a graduate student-led breakout session designed to help attendees understand what graduate students need from their experience, followed by a roundtable discussion. The curriculum for both first- and second-year graduate students included separate panel discussions titled “Things I Learned in My First Year.” During these discussions, professionals who recently transitioned from graduate school into a new role reflected on the most valuable aspects of their graduate experiences.
Event topics were informed by a committee of second-year graduate students, professionals, and supervisors, including Chrissie King, assistant director of the Rutgers University Campus Center; Megan Waldrop, assistant director of student activities at West Chester University; and Alia Elbanna and Alexis Robinson, both graduate students at Rowan University.
“You must put the graduate students at the center of the planning process; you have to make sure that the graduate students are helping curate sessions for them and by them,” Talamo said. “Another thing to consider is finding sponsors to help cover the cost of the space, materials, and food.”
Talamo said Party Crew, a local event company, contributed $500 in sponsorship funding toward the event. All Colors, a local printing company, offered discounts on custom notebooks that were given to each participant at check-in to use for notetaking during the event.
In terms of marketing, the committee spread the word about the event through the ACUI Region VII email list, LinkedIn posts, and personalized emails to acquaintances. “The most impactful marketing approach was creating a contact sheet of individuals we all knew across the region and sending a personalized email to let them know about the opportunity,” he said. “Grads reached out to other grads, supervisors reached out to other supervisors, and so on.”
While the event wasn’t exclusively for ACUI members, the committee strategically introduced graduate students and supervisors to ACUI, highlighting the benefits of association membership.
“This was huge because graduate students do not typically know about ACUI until the Regional Conference in November — if they are lucky enough to attend,” Talamo said. “We’ve also been working with the regional conference planning team to use the words ‘Grad and Grow’ at their regional conference to help create a bridge from the summer to the conference.”
This year’s Grad and Grow event followed a virtual trial run in 2022 open to students across the country. “From the virtual event, we learned that the graduate students really wished they had the opportunity to see each other in person and network, and we agreed,” Talamo said.
Region VII plans to hold a similar event next summer to be hosted by another university in the region.