Writing: the Epicenter of Graduate Student Success

Submitted on April 29, 2019

by Elizabeth Labiner

Shelley Hawthorne Smith has studied, engaged in, and taught reading and writing from nearly all academic disciplinary angles. As an undergraduate at Wheaton College, she earned a degree in English Literature and a certificate in Human Needs and Global Resources. She then came to the University of Arizona for an MFA in Creative Writing. After earning her MFA, Hawthorne Smith taught community college in San Jose, California, and at the elementary-school level with the Peace Corps in South Africa. After her time in the Peace Corps, she found herself drawn back to Arizona. She explains, “Because I enjoyed teaching writing at the community college level and because I missed Tucson, I returned to the University of Arizona for a doctoral program in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English.”

While working on her PhD, Hawthorne Smith taught in the UA Writing Program and worked with a local nonprofit, Aviva Children’s Services, a group that strives to improve the quality of life for children who are victims of neglect, abuse and poverty. She was also part of the UA Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows program, which led in part to the work she does now:

When I was a few years into my program, Georgia Ehlers, the director of the Peace Corps Fellows program, connected me with graduate students who were applying for funding. I helped these students refine their applications, and that work eventually turned into my current position.

Hawthorne Smith reflects that while this specific job was not her goal when she started graduate school, she loves it. She feels lucky to be able to get to know and help so many different graduate students and to learn about the work they do. She also understands that life outside of school doesn’t pause for graduate students; Hawthorne Smith herself got married and had two of her three children while in graduate school (see photo), so she is aware of the many different priorities that students may be taking into account as they work toward their degree. Hawthorne Smith’s experience in many different disciplines and roles makes her an ideal resource for graduate students from any number of fields, looking for advice in pursuing any of a wide range of opportunities.

Now housed in the Graduate Center, she is eager to expand her reach and impact. She notes two areas of interest in particular:

I am beginning to develop new services to help graduate students in their development as writers. I am focusing especially on dissertating writers. There are some excellent writing resources on campus, including the Writing Skills Improvement Program and the Think Tank Writing Center, but I often talk with students who feel isolated as they work on their dissertation. I am excited about some ideas we have to support students in that stage.

I would also like to help find ways to better integrate international graduate students into campus life. We are so fortunate to have such a large number of students from all over the world at the UA. I am interested both in how the UA can better serve them and what we can do to facilitate even stronger connections between domestic students and international students.

While graduate students can look forward to forthcoming resources and programs in the near future, Hawthorne Smith currently has multiple ongoing projects in which they can participate. One such program is the Writing Efficiency Groups convening this summer. These groups, which each last one month, are primarily for dissertating students to help improve writing productivity. In addition, there is the Summer Fellowship Application Support Program, which helps students develop application materials for graduate and postdoctoral funding opportunities. The program is about to begin and will incorporate some new activities and strategies this summer.

There are many skills that graduate students need to succeed in their programs and in their careers, and Hawthorne Smith is pragmatic about what, when, and how to build one’s capabilities:

Obviously, developing expertise in one’s academic discipline is foremost but, considering my current position, I suppose I should say grant writing is next. The better response to your question, though, would depend on each student’s understanding of success. Being a competent grant writer is probably advantageous in most situations. However, I think it is generally a good idea not to expend too much effort on activities you do not enjoy, so I only recommend cultivating the skill of grant writing to people who enjoy it.

The skills I think are most important, regardless of the type of success one is working towards, are both the most basic and the most difficult. I work with many students who are successful in their fields; they have obtained funding, had papers published, and won teaching awards. The skill that these students have is the ability to find and connect to their people. In essence, they are excellent readers or writers (or listeners and speakers).

Basic communication skills are easy for most of us; we learn them as children. I think we often forget to keep cultivating these skills. If students want to be successful, it is a good idea to learn to be an excellent listener (or reader) in many different contexts and speaker (or writer) for many different audiences.

As Hawthorne Smith continues to build programming to support graduate student success, we look forward to sharing more exciting opportunities as they arise!