Taking the (icy) plunge in a mountain lake at RECON 2012
There’s a series of images from this year’s RECON, the annual graduate students’ retreat and conference that, in many ways, say it all. Men and women, master’s and doctoral students from different research disciplines, are plunging into a mountain lake, egging each other on, and scrambling together on a rocky mountainside – even doing yoga on a precarious mountainside perch, just for fun. What’s most apparent is the energy, camaraderie, the enjoyment, the anticipation, the warmth and sheer connectedness of every dive-bombing daredevil, every would-be mountaineer writ large on every face.
To Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Stew Petersen, it’s the very essence of what this fledgling conference – just in its second year – sets out to achieve. “One of our key goals as a faculty is to celebrate graduate student research, provide professional development opportunities and bring our students together in a space beyond campus,” says Petersen of the Canmore conference launched by Dean Kerry Mummery in 2011. “We also wanted to impart lessons in collegiality because students in grad school are often very focused on being research trainees in a specific discipline. Sometimes they are so focused that they’re not aware of what is going on around them, so there’s a need to expose students from other disciplines and get to know each other. If we pay attention to each other, we can really hear each other."
To this end, conference organisers interspersed research presentations in the various disciplines so students in every facet of the faculty’s research areas would be rubbing shoulders with each other and faculty members, hearing about each other’s work, and enjoying outdoor activities that would draw different people together.
For doctoral student Vince Tedjasaputra it heralded the perfect start to his academic career at the U of A. “… As an international student … it's scary to come to a new country, make friends, and yet still maintain the motivation and drive to produce high-quality research. The programming at RECON allowed new and returning students to feed off the enthusiasm and brilliance of our peers, while promoting camaraderie and collegiality, forging new and long lasting friendships, and showcasing Canada's gorgeous natural panorama. It is, decidedly, an incomparable experience to any I've had an in academic environment.”
Enjoying outdoor activities together, especially in one as awe-inspiring as the Rocky Mountains, is an especially good ice-breaker and team-builder, says Petersen.
“An interesting thing about hiking on a mountain is that your companions are usually selected because of walking pace rather than research discipline. That brings people from different backgrounds together to converse and share information about themselves. You see comfort developing between people, friendships start to blossom, and people feel they can speak freely,” he says.
That’s exactly what graduate student Pat Reid found. “At no other time of the year will grad students have free rein to speak in a leisurely setting to such a cross-section of faculty members who are each uniquely involved in different areas of research and with senior grad students carving out their research futures. As a first year grad student still shaping my research interests, it was an outstanding forum that I greatly enjoyed…”
“One of the biggest problems with graduate studies is that people can feel alone and isolated,” says Petersen. “We have all these stressors on us wondering whether we belong here, whether we’re as good as the next person because it’s highly competitive. Students spend a lot of time worrying about these things and they’re big distractions. These are always worse when you’re alone. So seeing new students making friends, settling in, interacting with each other is, is wonderful. I think if we can divert one mental health problem it’s worth all that time and effort (we put into the conference).
“We want people to get the right start,” emphasizes Peterson, “getting to know their professors, meeting each other at orientation, learning through regular information sessions about scholarships, how to write grant proposals, being involved in the faculty’s speaker series and so on throughout the year. This (conference) is a natural extension of that,” says Petersen. “It’s important too that students gain skills in conference organization and management and develop their presentation skills.”
“For me, the success of the conference was in seeing everyone together on Sunday morning when we were waiting for the bus,” says doctoral student, Stacy-Lynn Sant, one of the conference organizers. “I looked at the group in the hotel lobby – professors and students, first year and senior students, international students – everyone just talking and mingling together. This is why RECON works: because all these people from various backgrounds get this incredible opportunity to get to know each other in a setting that is not school.”
Petersen hopes RECON proves an attractant to future graduate students. “There are many graduate programs to choose from and I think this a unique offering in our faculty and at the University of Alberta. It is a great example of how this Faculty looks beyond the scientific training to the development of the person. I hope it becomes a tradition. I guess you could say that RECON is the start (to graduate studies), then we water the garden with different experiences and learning opportunities throughout the year.”
Photo credits: Alyssa Hindle, Jodie Stearns and Vince Tedjasaputra