When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Lehigh campus in March, graduate student Neeraj Sandesh Deodikar found himself without the on-campus job that he depends on to pay his living expenses—and no prospects for a summer internship.
“It was looking very difficult for me,” said Deodikar, who is pursuing a master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering at Lehigh.
Claire Siepser’s graduate assistantship ended too.
“I was thrown into uncertainty as to whether I could even continue at Lehigh,” said Siepser, who is pursuing a master’s of education in counseling and human services.
Thanks to Lehigh’s innovative Hire-a-Grad Summer Initiative, Deodikar and Siepser were able to find jobs at Lehigh that not only provided income for the graduate students over the summer, but also offered unique professional development opportunities. Deodikar worked with the Office of International Affairs and Library and Technology Services, while Siepser was employed in the Health and Wellness Center. In all, 51 graduate students were able to find positions on campus.
“The program is a great example of solving a COVID-19-related problem creatively,” said Beth Dolan, deputy provost for graduate education. “Collaborating with units across campus, we found professional development opportunities for graduate students in what had been a crisis of employment. I’m grateful to all our partners in this effort.”
The program was sponsored by the Provost’s Office, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of International Affairs, the Graduate Life Office and the Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD).
The idea for the initiative took root in March and April when Kathleen Hutnik, associate dean for graduate student life, and Amy McCrae, coordinator in the Graduate Life Office, noted that with the cancelation of in-person, catered events, they had some extra money in their budgets and might be able to hire a few graduate students to do project work over the summer. They speculated that other departments might too.
Dolan said Hutnik and McCrae were aware of the financial concerns that graduate students faced because of the pandemic, especially among international students unable to travel to their home countries for the summer as planned and those anticipating that their go-to, in-person summer jobs in education or the service industries would no longer be available.
Dolan raised the issue in a senior leadership meeting, which resulted in the Provost’s Office and the other sponsors contributing a total of $70,000 in matching funds for the initiative. About 90 units and individual researchers on campus applied for the matching funds; those who were awarded funding advertised their positions on the Career Center and Professional Development platform Handshake.
“We knew that international graduate students, many of whom were dependent upon summer income in order to remain at Lehigh, would be particularly impacted by COVID-19,” said Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost of international affairs. “Many of these students didn't have the option to return to their home countries. We were pleased to be a partner on such a swift, innovative response to the emergency.”
Through the initiative, Siepser obtained a position in the Health and Wellness Center as the marketing and communications coordinator. She said she also was connected to two other positions outside of the initiative.
“Having those jobs over the summer and then getting another for the academic year meant I could continue my education at Lehigh,” Siepser said. “Without the initiative, I very likely would not have been able to.”
Graduate students found jobs across campus in a variety of disciplines and departments.
Deodikar said he worked with the Office of International Affairs on a project in connection with Lehigh’s 50th anniversary celebration of undergraduate women’s arrival on campus. He also worked with Library and Technology Services’ web and mobile services group.
Sayed Abdul Bashir Sadat, who is pursuing a doctorate in instructional technology, worked with the College of Business to help faculty transition their courses to a remote platform, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many courses online for the fall 2020 semester.
Meanwhile, Michael Kimmel, who is pursuing a master’s in educational leadership, secured a position as a summer business analyst for the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, based in San Francisco. Working with Innovations Program Manager James Berneking and Managing Director Samantha Dewalt, he said, he helped to build a comprehensive student survey that aimed to understand how students experience and perceive entrepreneurship education so that the center can continue to deliver effective programming. He also helped to build a design concept for a "Design Sprint/Hack-a-Thon" challenge, in which college students form teams and design their own entrepreneurial education experience.
“The initiative not only not only helped me financially,” Kimmel said, “but... also, I was able to expand my professional network.”
Vicky Wrigley, who is pursuing a master’s degree in statistics, worked for Lehigh's Film and Documentary Studies Department, under the supervision of Michael Kramp, professor of English, to design a database containing film clips that professors can use to help instruct their students remotely.
“I had a job planned out for the summer that fell through due to COVID,” Wrigley said, “so I was extraordinarily grateful for this opportunity provided by the Hire-a-Grad program. Not only did it help me get practical experience in designing a database for a client, a critical task in my field, but it also gave me income for the summer.”
Hutnik said McCrae, of the Graduate Life Office, and Tammy Friday, of the Office of International Affairs, handled the logistics of the initiative, including setting up the students in Payroll.
“What was so encouraging to me is the way the campus rallied—fast—to create this program,” Hutnik said. “It was complex putting the pieces together, but we knew both from individual students reaching out to us [and] from a check-in survey that a significant number of students were concerned about having enough money for both food and rent.”
Hutnik and Dolan hope that the Hire-A-Grad Initiative will inspire programs to post project-related openings to the CCPD Handshake platform for Summer 2021.