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Climate and Diversity Committee Launches New Initiatives to Promote Student Welfare

25 January 2021

The Department of Chemistry strives to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone. That’s why the department’s Climate and Diversity Committee recently launched a new series of initiatives to promote student welfare. 

Last fall, committee members Yasha Duggal and Varun Mandalaparthy organized a social event for international students who are currently away from campus. The event was designed to help them connect with other students and feel welcome within the chemistry community. Many international students were unable to travel to campus last fall due to the current coronavirus crisis, making the event a critical opportunity to create a positive climate. 

A series of virtual workshops were also offered to graduate students throughout the semester. The workshops were led by staff from Penn State’s Counseling & Psychological Services and by Penn State’s Health Promotion & Wellness team. They covered topics such as graduate student imposter syndrome, stress, social unrest, and working from home. These events were organized by Climate and Diversity Committee members Margaret Gerthoffer and Santina Cruz in the hopes of improving the mental health of graduate students and the larger chemistry community. 

“To accomplish this goal, we must start with having conversations to show that it is not only important to prioritize your mental and emotional health, but that it is absolutely vital for your success and the collective success of our community,” Cruz and Gerthoffer explain, discussing their inspiration for the workshop series. “Unfortunately, 2020 has brought many reasons that make these workshops important, but one of those reasons was an article published in Angewante Chemie that was horribly offensive and generally adhered to out-dated principles when thinking about chemistry, professional mentorship, and more...We aimed to thus allow these workshops to be an avenue for our community to come together against the repugnant ideals expressed in this article.”

Each workshop included general strategies to improve mental health and resources for additional mental health care. Many of the workshops were heavily discussion-based, allowing attendees to ask questions related to their specific circumstance and share some of their personal experiences.

Cruz and Gerthoffer note that the imposter syndrome workshop was particularly well-attended. Many members of the chemistry community suffer from impostor syndrome, sometimes without realizing it. This workshop was led by Dr. Kate Staley, the assistant director for community outreach and education at CAPS. Throughout the workshop, Dr. Staley explained what impostor syndrome is and what it looks like, as well as strategies for how to overcome or tame impostor syndrome. 

Cruz and Gerthoffer also planned a stress less workshop in response to the elevated stress levels many of us have been experiencing while working from home and struggling to maintain an appropriate work-life balance as a result. This workshop was led by clinical dietitian and Assistant Director of Penn State's Health Promotion & Wellness Katelyn Quick. This workshop explained what stress is, what causes stress, and how stress affects our bodies. This led into a discussion of techniques for alleviating stress and time to practice stress-mitigating meditation practices.

A Social Unrest and Working from Home workshop was also offered. It was led by a counselor with CAPS. In this workshop, attendees had an open discussion about anxiety related to working from home, the pandemic, and the social injustices in our communities.

The Department of Chemistry plans to partner with the Climate and Diversity Committee to continue to find new and better ways to promote student welfare.