UCI News

Fellowships keep grad students afloat

With the pandemic limiting summer job opportunities, campus administrators provide a seasonal safety net

by Greg Hardesty, UCI | September 1, 2020
Fellowships keep grad students afloat
“I thought [summer] was going to be catastrophic. I thought, ‘We’re literally going to have homeless graduate students,’” says Gillian Hayes, vice provost of graduate education and dean of UCI’s Graduate Division. “Nothing is really great right now – everybody’s struggling together – but our fellows are excited that they’re able to learn a lot of valuable new skills, help others and, at the same time, receive financial support.” Steve Zylius / UCI

During most summers, graduate students at UCI stay busy – and make money – in various ways, from performing in summer stock theater to serving as teaching assistants, doing internships, helping to lead summer camps, tutoring kids and – for many international students – returning home to work and spend time with loved ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic nearly turned summer 2020 into an economic disaster for UCI’s 6,500 graduate students. The university, however, allocated $3 million to fund two fellowship programs and assist other students facing a drastic drop in income.

“We were really faced with a pretty big donut hole,” says Gillian Hayes, vice provost for graduate education and dean of UCI’s Graduate Division. “But the whole campus came together. I’m very proud of what my team did, of course, but this was a campuswide endeavor. People really stepped up.”

In addition to faculty members employing some graduate students with grant money they normally wouldn’t tap for summer jobs, UCI administrators created two summer fellowship programs paying $5,000 per fellow – a much-needed chunk of cash for 425 graduate students in various disciplines.

The fellowships stemmed from conversations Hayes had with Interim Provost Hal Stern; Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching & learning and dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education; Bernadette Boden-Albala, director of the Program in Public Health; and others.

About 300 graduate students were awarded summer fellowships by the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation to be trained in online instruction to help faculty members transition to remote teaching for the upcoming academic year.

An additional 125 fellows were selected to learn how to become COVID-19 contact tracers.

The 10-week online instruction workshop started June 22, while the contact tracing workshop – which lasts two months – started July 13. All 425 fellows got $5,000 on July 1.

“I don’t know that any other university has done this,” Hayes says. “We’re really proud of these fellowship programs.”

She says discussions began in March about how to assist graduate students over the summer.

“I thought it was going to be catastrophic. I thought, ‘We’re literally going to have homeless graduate students,’” Hayes recalls. “Nothing is really great right now – everybody’s struggling together – but our fellows are excited that they’re able to learn a lot of valuable new skills, help others and, at the same time, receive financial support.”

Crash course in public health

Theresa Duong, who’s entering her fifth year as a Ph.D. student in the Program in Public Health, scored a fellowship that lets her work with faculty to develop the contact tracing workshop and also acquire leadership skills as a coordinator of the volunteer army UCI is amassing to support its COVID-19 response throughout the year. 

On June 22, she began collaborating on the workshop. For Duong, it was a crash course in contact tracing practices, COVID-19 health equity issues and popular curriculum design.

“I had to understand how isolation and quarantine play a role [in contact tracing] and some of the legal aspects involved,” she explains. “We hit the ground running with meetings and training.”

Duong, who earned an undergraduate degree in public health policy at UCI in 2015, says she’s grateful for the summer fellowship.

“It’s really rewarding because we get to work with a lot of community partners,” she says. “It’s a big effort and definitely a community-driven experience, which I think is great.”

The 125 fellows who are learning how to become contact tracers will be certified at the same level as county health workers, Hayes notes.

“This is something they can put on their resumes,” she says. “They will have this skill for life.”

Sharon Robert, director of program development in public health, oversees the contact tracing fellowship training. After students complete a 25-hour workshop, they get the chance to apply what they’ve learned by performing contact tracing for up to 130 hours over the upcoming academic year.

“It’s a much-needed skill,” Robert says. “It’s not just about understanding what contact tracing is; it’s also looking at it through a health equity lens. It’s really about understanding health disparities and why certain chronic and infectious diseases affect certain sectors of the community more than others.”

Making virtual a reality

Danny Mann, director of graduate student and postdoctoral scholar instructional development, is helping to run the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation fellowship program focused on online instruction.

“As a university, we’re facing an unprecedented move to online instruction with a speed no one could have ever imagined,” he says. “This fellowship program enables a large group of graduate students to have some background in effective teaching practices – based on what research says we should do.

“This experience helps prepare them for their own teaching endeavors, whether they’re going to serve as T.A.s or eventually become faculty members.”

After 20 hours of training, the fellows will work throughout the summer with faculty who are bringing their courses online, supported by peer mentoring groups and the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation staff.

The two fellowship programs, Hayes says, will benefit UCI graduate students beyond summer 2020.

“We’re not only taking care of their immediate financial needs,” she says, “but also providing them with marketable skills that may help them in what’s likely to be a tight labor market for several years.”