Alexis Washburn and Ashlee Jeannot are the 2018-2019 Community Fellows for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Community Fellows

The 2018-2019 GSAS Community Fellows Alexis Washburn, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning M.A. ’19, and Ashlee Jeannot, M.A. in Diversity and Inclusion Leadership ’20, spent the past year engaged in making Tufts a more welcoming and inclusive place for underrepresented graduate students.

By Gabrielle Otto

In Fall 2018 the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences launched the Community Fellows program, which aims to create a strong, welcoming, and inclusive community for historically marginalized students across the school.

“The Community Fellows program was initiated after many discussions with students, faculty, and staff. The GSAS Dean’s Office recognized a need for these Fellows to bring an intentional focus to an inclusive and supportive student community, and we are thrilled to continue the program into the upcoming academic year,” says Sarah Herchel, Associate Dean for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.   

The program is part of a broader strategic priority in GSAS to create a sense of belonging and support systems for students in the school and is led by two graduate students who work to identify resources and support mechanisms, and to develop community and social events.

 Alexis Washburn, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning M.A. ’19, and Ashlee Jeannot, Diversity and Inclusion Leadership M.A. ’20, are the inaugural leaders of the program. In the fellowship’s first year they have spread the word about the initiative, begun a new school-wide conversations series, and opened up lines of dialogue with university administrators and faculty on ways to improve the graduate student experience.

An Impactful Beginning

Both Washburn and Jeannot says they were drawn to the fellowship by the opportunity to create something that was long-lasting and reached across the breadth of programs in the graduate school.

One of their first tasks was get the word out about the Community Fellows program to the wider Tufts community. In the fall semester, the two met with representatives across the university, including faculty and administrators, to discuss opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion work at Tufts and to learn more about existing initiatives. In addition to spreading awareness, the two hoped to determine where they could best contribute their voices and perspectives.

Jeannot, who works full-time at a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm and attends graduate courses mostly in the evenings, says this experience gave her new insight into the innerworkings of Tufts.

“It was helpful not only for enlarging our perspective, but also getting this professional experience of advocating for ourselves and for other people too,” Washburn adds.   

Creating Brave Spaces

In the spring semester, Jeannot and Washburn launched the Community Conversation series.  The series connects topics happening in current events or being discussed in the media to the conversation happening at Tufts. Several times a semester, a group of students, and occasionally faculty and staff, come together to discuss a general theme related to diversity and inclusivity. Jeannot and Washburn would kick off the event by choosing a short video, article, or sound bite related to the week’s topic to get the conversation going.

Their most successful event from this past semester, both Jeannot and Washburn agree, was around the subject of microaggressions. The event’s name, “Not Just Another Dialogue,” came from the idea that there is a need for conversations around identity, diversity, and inclusivity that endure and have impact beyond a typical media cycle. The Fellows made a point of inviting and encouraging attendance from faculty and staff in addition to student participation. The result, they say, was a refreshing conversation with multiple perspectives and an opportunity to get everyone on the same page.

“By being in one room all together we were all able to think through case studies that we had developed and ask questions like: Who’s in a position of power? How are they using that power? How is it affecting other people? The next step is to think about how we can continue that conversation, carry it forward, and think about developing institutional changes to address these issues,” Washburn says.

Jeannot says that she hopes the series has created more opportunities for the Tufts community to have meaningful conversations around identity and belonging. “Someone introduced me to the term ‘brave spaces,’” she says, “Which is not something I’d heard before. It’s the idea that there is no such thing as a safe space, but what you really need to hone in on is creating a ‘brave space’ where people are open to being vulnerable and to having these difficult conversations. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Community Conversations series.”

Sustaining Community

Jeannot and Washburn say the feedback they have gotten from fellow graduate students has been both largely positive and helpful in terms of giving them ideas about where to take their programming and what areas might need more attention. It was feedback from other students that encouraged them to organize social events. These social gatherings foster community and create opportunities for underrepresented graduate students to meet one another across programs. Making new connections, with students from an array of academic backgrounds from the Biology department to the MFA program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, was one of the highlights for both Fellows.  

Student feedback also led the Community Fellows to successfully advocate for graduate student needs when meeting with top-level administrators. In a recent meeting with the Office of Student Affairs, Jeannot and Washburn specifically highlighted many of the needs of the graduate community, and this resulted in new formalized opportunities for graduate voices to be heard and considered when making policy. 

While Jeannot and Washburn will be passing the torch to two new Community Fellows for the next academic year, they are both excited about the future of the program.

Washburn says, “The more well known the program becomes on campus and the more people engage with it, I think the better it will become in the future. Even though there are only spots for two Fellows, it’s clear that there are a ton of people on campus who really care about this work and want to get involved.”