Meredith Wooten G’06 Gr’13 became the director of the Graduate Student Center (GSC) on August 31, bringing a long and formative relationship with the University full circle.
After graduating from Bryn Mawr College with a BA with honors in political science, Wooten took her passion for problem-solving and erasing socio-economic inequalities to Penn, where she earned a doctorate in the same subject. It was during this time she found her love for educational program development and advocacy, serving as a fellow at the Graduate Student Center. As a fellow, she focused on lessening the gulf of inequalities between graduate students of different backgrounds, spearheading a program that provided students with the tools and environment necessary to write and defend a successful dissertation (see “Drop and Give Me 20 … Pages!,” Sep|Oct 2005).
It’s this notion that graduate students can only thrive if they feel supported and equal that informs all of Wooten’s work. A first-generation college graduate, she understands how isolated first-gens can feel when their parents struggle to understand their academic motivations and their peers struggle to understand their backgrounds. Thus, Wooten first served as the founding director of the Center for Scholar Development at Drexel. There, she designed programs and workshops to help students of all backgrounds make informed choices about how to advance their education and careers. She also helped found and cochair Drexel’s First Forward initiative, which supports first-gen college students on their path to graduation, and then, the career of their dreams.
I caught up with Wooten to discuss her new role at the Graduate Student Center, how her time at Penn influences her work, and the challenges first-generation graduate students continue to face. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.—Beatrice Forman C’22
How did your fellowship at the Graduate Student Center plant the seed for your current position?
Working at the Graduate Center, I developed the Dissertation Boot Camp in 2005 to help doctoral students make significant progress towards completion of their dissertations. It was such a success that the model was quickly adopted by graduate affairs administrators across the country. I realized how much I enjoyed developing academic and student support programs and saw the broader impact I could have within the academic community.
Working at the center also allowed me to gain experience with more deliberate, long-range planning and development. A good example of this is the Family Resource Center, which began with a series of monthly playdate brunches for students with dependents in the Grad Center common room. The Family Center later moved into its current space on the bottom level of the Graduate Center, and just last year it became an independent unit with a designated director.
What about graduate students, as opposed to undergraduate students, inspired you to make them a focus?
There is a tendency among researchers and student affairs professionals to focus on undergrads. Even though graduate and professional students may only be a year or so older than many college seniors, their student development and social needs are often underestimated. And because graduate students have successfully completed an undergraduate degree, we may assume they have a clear understanding of how to navigate academic institutions. The result is that student centers often devote less effort and are less well-equipped to engage graduate and professional students. This has improved considerably over the last decade, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
What was your experience as a first-generation college student like?
I definitely did not have the “typical” undergraduate experience for a Bryn Mawr student. Although I was lucky to receive generous scholarships and aid, I worked throughout school: work-study positions in the dining hall and library, as well as part-time jobs at a Borders bookstore and local cafes. As a result, I missed out on much of the social and intellectual life on campus, as well as opportunities to study abroad and intern during summers.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to get a first-class education and attend elite institutions at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. At the same time, I felt less-than-prepared to make the most of these experiences because there were few resources or programs designed to assist students like me.
Like many first-generation graduates, I felt an intense pressure to pay back the sacrifices my family had made, whether through literal checks I sent home or through frequent visits to help out in other ways. In this light, the decision to leave a stable, salaried job in Boston to return to school felt selfish and I found it difficult to explain without sounding self-indulgent or, worse, condescending.
The gulf between me and my family only widened once I got to graduate school. At a basic level, my parents could not really understand what I was doing or how to best support me. Because the percentage of first-generation college students who go on to earn terminal degrees is incredibly small, it is also difficult to find mentors with shared backgrounds who can help fill these gaps. This lack of support and guidance is particularly crucial in graduate school, when it’s common for students to adopt poor work-life habits in an effort to succeed academically.
Still, while there may have been more support at other institutions, I have no doubt that attending Bryn Mawr and Penn created a trajectory that would likely not have otherwise been possible.
Does the first-gen label impact the kind of programs and policies you advocate for?
Definitely. At Penn, the insecurity or self-doubt that graduate and professional students experience can be exacerbated by their first experience as a teaching assistant or leading an undergraduate research team. In addition to naturally feeling insecure while asserting authority over material you are still mastering, the affluence and academic preparation of Penn undergraduates can be a source of anxiety.
I am really excited about the new initiatives at Penn to support first-generation students, and I’m eager to work with partners to extend this support to our first-gen graduate population. I look to identifying faculty and graduate students who are first-generation college graduates, as well as the offices that support them. As part of these efforts, we host events like mixers for first-gen graduate students, with representatives from a number of campus offices and student groups.
More broadly, I’m excited to encourage better work-life balance by explicitly modeling and highlighting the ways that serious scholars find ways to relax and engage hobbies and passions beyond their research. In doing so, I hope to reinforce the message that one can be well-rounded and take time away from research without sacrificing one’s career.
What kind of role do you see GSC playing on campus under your leadership?
The most visible part of my job is maintaining a welcoming space in the center of campus, where graduate and professional students can relax, work, and connect with one another. Right now, I think many students see us as the place to go for free coffee and tea, and maybe as a venue to attend events or have a quiet study space. I am committed to broadening our role by connecting students to the resources, tools, and friends they can rely on to make the most of their time at Penn. Doing this effectively means connecting and partnering with many different groups—which is why my schedule has been so full!
What new programs and initiatives are in store for GSC?
Within the next year, we hope to launch a new website, and we’ve also been meeting with graduate student reps to develop expanded programming and resources. As the graduate student population continues to grow and change, I want to be sure we adapt alongside it. As the first director of the Grad Center to have earned a PhD and held faculty positions, I bring a different set of experiences and perspectives to the role. I am excited to reenergize our academic support programs, but I also want to help ensure balance and well-being. One of the simplest and most important things we can do for our students is to truly listen and make an effort to understand them. Beyond this, we can create a space and opportunities that cultivate a sense of belonging and community.