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Staying ‘InTouch’: SEAS Support Network Provides Peer-to-Peer Help to Graduate Students

SEAS
Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Two graduate students at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have created a peer-to-peer support network for graduate students, which launched at the beginning of this academic year.

The organization, dubbed “InTouch,” connects “peers” — graduate students trained to provide advice — with other graduate students who request help. Peers also direct students to resources pertaining to issues spanning all facets of graduate student life, from academics to advisor relationships to mental health. Students can schedule individual meetings with peers by email or chat over coffee at InTouch’s weekly drop-in sessions.

“We’re trying to provide a resource for people to come to just be able to talk to someone who is like them,” said Omer Gottesman, one of InTouch’s co-founders and a sixth-year graduate student in Applied Physics.

Though InTouch is a student-led initiative, SEAS and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences administrators have already pledged their support. GSAS Director of Student Services Jacqueline “Jackie” Yun said she and John A. Girash, the director of graduate academic programs at SEAS, helped to facilitate a large portion of the peers’ trainings.

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The SEAS Graduate Council helps fund InTouch, and Dean of SEAS Francis J. Doyle III said he has informed the council that whatever they invest, “I will double.”

“Even though our goal is not to make it specifically stressful, graduate school has plenty of stressful moments and high-stakes situations that are better handled with emotional and situational support than without it,” Girash wrote in an email.

The idea behind InTouch arose two years ago, when Gottesman sought help from his adviser, Assistant Computer Science Professor Finale Doshi-Velez, after experiencing difficulties while obtaining his Ph.D. After speaking with Doshi-Velez, who had observed several peer support programs for graduate students while studying at MIT, Gottesman decided to start InTouch alongside third-year Bioengineering graduate student John Ahrens.

Doshi-Velez, who helped start InTouch and is currently its faculty adviser, has received several awards from SEAS and the Graduate Student Council for her role in the program.

Before formally launching, InTouch worked to determine the amount of training peers need to be fully equipped to address the issues they may encounter.

“The biggest part of the training is A.) just being aware of all of the resources there are, and B.) knowing exactly how to involve [the most sensitive resources] or how to refer people to them if that’s necessary,” Gottesman said.

“In some cases, we want to be able to help with things like Title IX or things like mental health, but we also want to be able to deal with much simpler things,” he added.

The program thus far has five peers, and many of them said they joined InTouch because they had found graduate school isolating or frustrating at times. After experiencing difficulty in their first years of graduate school, several peers said they wanted to become a resource for other students — potentially preventing others from repeating their own struggles.

“It’s important to share, to talk to each other and build a sense of community,” peer Ismail Ben Atitallah said. “We share a lot, as grad students.”

Atitallah added that the SEAS graduate advising system does not always provide the mentorship that a student might need. He said that SEAS’s advising is less “dynamic” than those of other schools or departments because, in SEAS, graduate students are sometimes matched with advisers before meeting them in person. Unlike in other parts of GSAS, those assignments do not rotate, leading to potential conflict if the adviser and the advisee are not well-matched.

GSAS spokesperson Ann M. Hall declined to comment.

Even if the advising match is perfect, however, there are still some problems that require alternative resources, according to Yun.

“Maybe there’s another graduate student who has navigated that and has some really great wisdom to share,” Yun said.

With the semester coming to a close, InTouch is already looking to next fall. They seek to expand their reach and lower any barriers that might prevent a student from using their services, according to several peers.

Atitallah and Gottesman both said that InTouch might benefit from presenting its services more casually so that students do not associate the group exclusively with serious Title IX or mental health-related issues.

“We're not doing a perfect job of describing exactly what our job is — which is basically, we just want to be there for anyone, even if you just need to talk to someone,” Gottesman said.

In the coming months, InTouch will continue refining its strategies to best help other students. Atitallah is designing a new poster for the group’s next meeting, and peer Ziwei Qiu wrote in an email that InTouch may gather data from SEAS students about what they want from the program. As for Gottesman, he said he hopes InTouch will continue to grow after its founders have graduated.

“I am excited about the opportunity of helping students get through the tough times in grad school and hope more people will join InTouch and help each other,” Qiu wrote.

—Staff writer Amy L. Jia can be reached at amy.jia@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLJia.

—Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at iris.lewis@thecrimson.com.

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