By starting a graduate program at the University of Illinois, you have joined a large, vibrant community of people committed to exploring and understanding the world. You’re surrounded every day by tens of thousands of fascinating, dedicated, and creative people.
Within such a large and dynamic community, though, it can sometimes be challenging to connect with others. You may be wondering how to find those connections and build relationships with people around you. Good news, though: everyone else is wondering the same thing.
Why is building community in graduate school so important? Here are several reasons and some ideas for how to feel at home here at the University of Illinois—and how you can help other grad students feel at home, too.
Building community and connecting with others while you are in graduate school is important for two main reasons: First, connecting with more people means you have more people on your side, ready to provide support and guidance as you grow personally, academically, and professionally in grad school (and beyond). Second, having a range of friendly, healthy, supportive relationships within and outside the university can also help you live a balanced and fulfilling life as a grad student. It also allows you to help other graduate students to find support and enjoy their time at Illinois.
When we talk about community in graduate school, what does that mean? What kinds of communities might be valuable to cultivate and maintain in the coming years?
Interests: Your interests can—and probably should!—extend beyond the classroom or the lab. Exploring hobbies, socializing, and joining in all types of organized leisure are critical to living a balanced life and building community in grad school.
Affinity: Affinity groups are those centered on shared identities, concerns, or missions. These groups can help you locate allies, resources, and opportunities to receive support from and make positive contributions to larger communities you are passionate about.
Living: Whether staying in a shared residence in the heart of campus, living by yourself off campus, or completing your coursework outside of Champaign-Urbana, your neighbors and roommates can be members of your network of support and make wherever you reside during your graduate studies your home.
Family: Your identities as a graduate student and a member of your family need not be mutually exclusive. Inviting family to your campus spaces and practicing explaining the work you do in new ways can help bring into harmony those roles that can sometimes feel disconnected.
Academic & Professional: Completing your academic training requires taking a deep dive into your area of specialization, but that doesn’t mean you must handle every challenge individually. Learning communities provide valuable support, offer mentorship opportunities, and can connect you with current and future colleagues who are invested in your success.
While you’re here at Illinois, where can you look to build these sorts of communities?
Community during graduate school happens at a few different scales: in your department, at the university, in your local area, and beyond (your region, your country, and the world).
Your Department: Your department is where you will spend much of your time while at Illinois, and where you are most likely to find people who will share similar academic experiences. Building community and making friends in your department will support your academic growth and make your everyday life in grad school enjoyable and energizing.
One strategy here is to simply be present. Talk to people before class starts. Go to department seminars. Join grad student associations or volunteer to serve on committees.
You can also create new opportunities for you and your colleagues to connect. Start a study group or journal club, go out for coffee as a group, or host a game night.
University: For many of you, the University of Illinois is one of the largest institutions that you have ever been part of, with over 45,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff. Building a strong and vibrant community beyond your department can enrich your academic pursuits, give you a network of people who can support you, and help make the University of Illinois home for as long as you are here.
In graduate school, it can be easy to spend almost every moment of your life in your department’s building. But being in the same place all the time limits your community and can contribute to feelings of monotony and isolation. So change it up by exploring campus landmarks, using some of the half-a-million square feet of recreational space at the university, or even just studying on the Quad when it’s nice out.
You can also find people outside your department with shared interests or experiences by joining registered student organizations (often called RSOs) or connecting with campus units like the Asian American Cultural Center and the LGBT Resource Center.
Local Area: Your life extends beyond the university, and your community can, as well. Making connections with people in your local area can help you find balance, fun, and renewal outside your academic work, making your time at Illinois more sustainable and enjoyable. And if you aren’t on campus, this can be especially important.
Finding new community in your local area can be as simple as becoming a regular at a neighborhood coffee shop, attending cultural events and festivals, or finding a religious institution you want to be a part of. And remember to change your habits and try new experiences occasionally.
Regional/National/International: People who share your academic, personal, and professional interests can be found well beyond your local area. Luckily, digital technology makes it easier than ever to connect with them. Doing so while you are in graduate school can help you find collaborators, share ideas, and cultivate a broad base of support.
Participating in regional, national, or international professional organizations can also be a great way to join that broader community.
Also, try to maintain your connections to the communities (including your family and friends) that helped you succeed on your way to the University of Illinois, wherever those communities might be.
Building community in graduate school isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a process you will be engaging in the entire time you’re here. That means you’ll have many exciting, fulfilling opportunities to make yourself—and your colleagues—a home at the University of Illinois.
Derek Attig is the Director of Career Development for the Graduate College. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.