As graduate students, we have a love-hate relationship with the undergraduates, though we often express the hate more fervently than the love. Most of the undergrad-focused comments I hear from my fellow graduate students are critical, at best, and I would be lying if I claimed to never openly voice these critiques myself. “How do the undergrads go out and party every single night? Do they ever do homework?” “Why are the undergrads wearing shorts when it’s 10 degrees outside?” “I prefer Ann Arbor over the summer when the undergrads aren’t here.” “The library is unbearable right now because the undergrads have finals or something.”
Our ability to criticize the undergrads and express our (undeniably true, of course) superiority over them bonds us as a graduate student body. It also allows us to justify our cohabitation with undergraduates and the fact that we live, study, and work in a “college town,” despite no longer being undergraduate students. I’ve read countless think pieces and op-eds about the insufferableness of living in a college town post-undergraduate and how such situations promote “Peter Pan syndrome,” or the reluctance to grow up and move on with your life post-college. “Peter Pans” still behave like and exclusively interact with undergraduates even though they are no longer undergraduate students. Admittedly, I recently began to question whether or not my college town (as some would call Ann Arbor) lifestyle and regular interaction with undergrads has run its course, or at least should have run its course, lest I develop “Peter Pan syndrome.” Maybe my problem was simply that I read and took seriously think pieces written by uninformed Internet strangers. Fair enough. Maybe, however, my problem was my perspective.
Ever the optimist, I attempted to change my perspective. I can’t identify a pivotal moment or experience that prompted me to change my attitude, but, at some point in the past few months, I realized that I would most likely only live in a college town for a few more years. Accordingly, I should make the most of this limited time rather than worry about whether or not my experiences and behaviors are typical and appropriate for a graduate student in my situation. I took advantage of my college town proximity by assuming both formal and informal positions mentoring undergraduates. This semester I assumed a GSI position in an introductory lab course. The relatively informal lab format allows for many more student-GSI interactions than had my previous position lecturing to a discussion section. The lengthy labs also involve a significant amount of downtime. Rather than spending the downtime at my computer reading random think pieces on the Internet, I’ve been interacting with the students and sharing my experiences as a former undergraduate with them as they share their concerns and experiences with me. I’ve begun to realize that the undergraduate students in my lab are much more insightful and much better company than are Internet strangers. I also started working as a tutor for undergraduate students in select subjects. This experience has allowed me to interact closely and regularly with a few students and watch them grow and learn as both students and individuals. Additionally, this experience has awarded me confidence in my teaching abilities and occasionally a reminder that I need to refresh my calculus skills.
All of these experiences have been so much more rewarding than I ever could have imagined. I have met students that challenge me as an instructor and as person. I’ve also established friendships and shared in experiences that enabled me to view the undergraduate experience and the college town life from a different lens. It is very easy to get caught up in our graduate student lives and our individual research projects or departments and isolate ourselves from the undergrads and the “college town” aspects of Ann Arbor. I’ve realized, with a little change of perspective, that this isolation isn’t always a good thing.