Last week, Case Western Reserve University’s campus was filled with many students and families during orientation. Large groups were scattered throughout campus, taking in their new environment and getting to know new friends. At the same time, the graduate schools also had orientation going on. I had orientation for the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and throughout the week made small talk with my peers. One of them told me a story of an experience she had while waiting in the infamous long line at access services. She told me that a student next to her in line asked if she was a freshman as well, to which she replied that she was a grad student. The new student quickly apologized and said sorry for disrespecting her.
We were both confused as to why an undergraduate student might think that mistaking the level of a student was a disrespectful observation.
I just graduated from CWRU in the spring after spending four years working on my bachelor’s degree. Throughout my time as an undergrad, I took many classes that had students in every year, so I never felt intimidated or underneath a senior, even during my first couple semesters. Many students might feel intimidated by older students, especially graduate students, because they are used to a hierarchy of class that is present in our high school culture. Despite the competitive nature that this might have created in high school, I do not think that this type of competition is vital or present on a college campus, at least between different academic standings.
Throughout my undergraduate career, I met many different people, some who had been in school for longer than four years for various reasons. Some of your classmates might have changed their major at some point and had to start their new program late. Many students take time off because of co-ops, personal issues or for time to travel. There are plenty of different people just in undergraduate classes. Just because a student might be older or younger, taking the same class as you does not mean they are any better or worse. Of course you should respect students, but do so because it is right thing to do for any human, not a perceived hierarchy.
Since starting school, I have had a hard time feeling like a graduate student. My impression of graduate students before I became one was that they were always busy because their coursework was more specific and specialized than mine. This is true of most graduate programs, therefore making them slightly harder than undergraduate coursework. Even though I know I will be busier as a grad student, I still do not feel like a “graduate student.” Perhaps this is because school is still just beginning, and I am so used to saying I’m an undergrad at CWRU. But I suspect that it might be more of my refusal to accept a competitive hierarchy of academic standings.
Of course there are differences between graduate students and undergraduate students. The level of work is quite different, with more work and expectations being placed upon the graduate student than an undergraduate student. However, each person enrolled at this university has different levels of difficulty in their classes and I am not one to judge or try to compare them. So despite your academic standing or school, we are all students here at CWRU and can admit that although our individual programs might have different levels of difficulty, we are all here to get a degree and learn from our experiences throughout school and from each other.
Higher respect towards graduate students shouldn’t come from any kind of idea that we are so different from undergrads and therefore deserve more respect. There can be respect for the work, but realize that many grad students are not so different from undergrad. For example, I just finished my undergraduate degree only four months ago, and it feels like just yesterday that I was starting it.
CWRU is a diverse community with people of many ages and backgrounds in different work and education. Even though an undergraduate career is centered around four years of study and might seem applicable to the labels of freshman or senior, I like to see everyone as equal in their educational pursuits. Class competition does not help create a community. College is about learning from others and if there is fear about people that have been here longer, it is not possible to have a cohesive community. Instead of making sure there is respect for grad students or older students, just talk to an older or grad student about their experiences.
I don’t know about other graduate students, but I don’t feel like I should be awarded a special level of respect from other students just because my coursework might be more detailed or slightly harder, especially when I still feel like just another student at CWRU.
Abby Assmus is a graduate student as well as a writer for The Observer.