Illuminating the importance of supporting Berkeley’s graduate students

Graduate students are at the fulcrum of Berkeley’s public mission. They connect research to teaching, working alongside faculty to drive research excellence that shapes the world for the better while mentoring undergraduates and inspiring them to open their minds to greater possibilities. Graduate students bring their diverse perspectives to classrooms and labs, shaping Berkeley’s identity as a place that is dedicated to widening the doors to educational opportunity, setting students from all backgrounds on a path toward success in their lives and careers.

Graduate students do more than help faculty with research and help teach undergraduates, says Jill Duerr Berrick, professor at Berkeley Social Welfare.

Graduate students help her connect more fully with undergraduates, and their insights help undergraduates feel that faculty are more approachable. “They help me refine my presentation of material to undergraduates,” says Berrick. “Undergrads see graduate students as being closer to them in experience. I’m getting intel from them that I wouldn’t get otherwise.”

On the research front, it’s hard to overstate the importance of graduate students.

“Even though I mentor Ph.D. students, I’m not just helping them. They help me fuel my thinking about my own research,” Berrick says. “When they talk with me about their work, they’re moving me into areas that I wouldn’t have remotely considered. That’s huge.”

Color photo of Mayra smiling, standing next to a tree on a sunny day, her left hand in her pants pocket.

Doctoral candidate Mayra Cazares’s dissertation centers on educational resilience among former foster youth.

Berrick mentored Mayra Cazares, a masters and doctoral student at Berkeley Social Welfare studying child welfare issues. In turn, Cazares mentored Xiamara Martinez Peredia, an ethnic studies major and undergraduate at the school.

“As a GSI (graduate student instructor), you’re shaping the trajectories of these young people and their mindsets about grad school,” Cazares says. “I wouldn’t have known that pursuing a doctorate could be a possibility for me unless I talked to a GSI when I was an undergrad.”

Martinez Peredia says that having a graduate student mentor who was a woman of color made her feel comfortable to present her ideas and ask questions.

“Professors and Ph.D.s can be hard to approach. That could be the psyche of someone who is a woman of color and a transfer student — at least that was mine,” Martinez Peredia says. “I’ve been interacting with GSIs since my first day at Berkeley, and they’ve been important in every step of my educational growth. In classrooms, labs, clubs, and other spaces, graduate students are so important to campus.”

Berrick says she sees many students automatically rule out graduate school because of the cost. “They say, ‘I can’t afford it. It’s my dream, but I can’t do it.’ Many of these students are first-gen, low-income students of color. Until we break this narrative by helping to support our graduate students more fully, we aren’t going to be making inroads in diversity and helping to secure Berkeley’s intellectual future.”

Supporting graduate fellowships means not only bolstering the very core of Berkeley’s identity but also creating ripple effects that travel outward to change the world.

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