Nina Marijanovic, Margaret Pentecost, and Spencer Stone of the CEHD Graduate Student Success Office

There’s more than one way to get noticed at a large, urban university.

Margaret Pentecost, assistant dean of the Graduate Student Success Office (GSS) in the College of Education and Human Development, found that freshly popped popcorn did the trick.

In the fall of 2019, when the GSS debuted, Pentecost and her colleagues wanted to make sure the students knew how to find them. In the mornings, they would make sure hot coffee was brewed. And in the afternoons, the aroma of warm popcorn would waft through the building, beckoning visitors.

One year later, amid the COVID-19 global health emergency, the refreshments are a thing of the past (for the time being). But there is one very important message Pentecost wants CEHD graduate students to hear: “We are still here to support students.”

CEHD created the office last year as a way to help graduate students “conceptualize what the graduate school experience is all about,” said Nina Marijanovic, graduate admissions coordinator in GSS. The five-person staff also includes graduate student Spencer Stone; Lynne Ernst, unit business manager and admissions counselor; and Melody Halbleib, program coordinator, senior.

Over one-third of the total enrollment of graduate students at UofL are in CEHD, said Pentecost, a 28-year CEHD staff member and three-time CEHD graduate. She said the total number of graduate students – those at both the master’s and doctoral level – in CEHD ranges between 1,100 to 1,200, but this year that number shot to more than 1,300.

Because their milestones are not the same as those of undergraduates, graduate-level students get focused attention from GSS.

“Our mission is to help graduate students get their degrees in a timely manner,” Pentecost said. “Our question is always, ‘How do we help them move to this next level?’”

“Our graduate programs consistently rank among the best in the country and are in high demand. That has continued to be the case during this COVID-19 health crisis,” said Amy Lingo, interim dean of CEHD. “Our GSS team is dedicated to the needs of our graduate students, who are often juggling work and family demands with their advanced degree programs. We want to ensure that all graduate students achieve their educational goals.”

One of the first things GSS accomplished was a reduction in the amount of paperwork graduate students need to fill out. The center’s staff converted paper forms to online forms that could be dropped into a portal, which served them well when the abrupt shift was made in March to remote learning.  A new website put all the needs of a CEHD graduate student in one place.

“Since the very first moment I knew I was going to transfer, the Graduate Student Success Center was so helpful by guiding me through all the paperwork I needed to do and connecting me with the departments that could help me during my transfer period,” said Priscilla Calvo, an international student from Costa Rica who is pursuing a master’s degree in sport administration. “One of my first stops during my first visit to campus was their office, and since then, it became my favorite spot to stop by in between my classes to grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and hang out with my friends.”

In the spring, the center produced a virtual honors and awards reception.

“Even though that wasn’t one of the things I planned to do for the year, it was a great celebration of our students and our successes,” Pentecost said.

Because having a social environment helps students succeed, Marijanovic, a doctoral student herself, said her focus for fall has been to create as much virtual programming as possible so that graduate students don’t become isolated. Workshops held via Microsoft Teams every Monday from 4 to 4:30 p.m. take on such topics as “Graduate Student Life Skills” and “How to Be Resilient in Graduate School.” Links on the GSS website easily take graduate students to The Graduate School’s PLAN website, filled with helpful information on how to succeed as a graduate student and beyond.

“The office and staff are truly amazing,” said Hayley Seely, a doctoral student in counseling psychology. “From morning check-ins to needed breaks throughout the day, the GSS team is always there as a constant support system.”

But the most important thing graduate students in CEHD need to know is that the Graduate Student Success Office “is the place to come to first, no matter what they need,” Marijanovic said.

For a little while, though, it will be Bring Your Own Popcorn.