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(From left) Members of Creating Connections’ executive board Hadil Abuhmaid, Helen Toloza, Jaclyn Kellon and Ana Hernandez organized the second Diversity Dinner for graduate students. (Courtesy of Abbie Winn)

When Jaclyn Kellon first came to the University of Oregon for graduate school, she said she knew she would be one of the few, if not the only, women of color in her program. She knew pursuing a doctorate in chemistry would be a challenge but didn’t realize the social pressures that would come along with the program.

“I felt really isolated and had thought about actually leaving grad school because of the lack of social community that I felt,”  Kellon said.

Instead of leaving, Kellon decided to form a student support group called Community for Minorities in STEM. Last year, she and another former graduate student began Creating Connections, a student group designed to bring graduate students from diverse backgrounds together to form a community of support.

Now in her fifth and final year at UO, Kellon serves as the treasurer on an executive board of four women from diverse backgrounds that makes up Creating Connections. Together, she and the other board members organize events each term to help graduate students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds socialize and build a network outside of their program departments. 

On Friday, Jan. 22, Creating Connections hosted its second Diversity Dinner. Graduate students across all departments were invited to the Willamette Atrium for dinner, which was funded by donations from the various graduate school departments.

As roughly 130 graduate students filled the atrium, volunteers gave them name tags with an assigned table number. The seating assignments were arranged so that students from different departments would sit together and meet new people, said Hadil Abuhmaid, a member of the executive board.

Before dinner began, graduate students could put a pin into a map to indicate where they are from. Pins were scattered across North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia by the end of the night.

“I really love that they’re having people get together who are underrepresented identities at the school ㅡ I think it’s fantastic,” said Beck Banks, a media studies doctoral candidate who attended the dinner.

The members of Creating Connections’ board noticed a lack of support and social opportunities for graduate students on campus. The organization serves to connect graduate students not only in a professional, academic setting, but in a way that forms friendships as well.

“Our mission is to connect and create support for students all over campus because if you look around, there’s nothing specifically for this group, and we’re trying to be there for them,” Abuhmaid said.

Abuhmaid, a doctoral candidate in media studies and external communications coordinator for Creating Connections, is the only Palestinian grad student that she knows of at UO. She said when she first came to the university, she wished she had a guide to living in Eugene and meeting people. She wanted to know where to buy furniture and how to take the EmX bus, for example.

That’s why Creating Connections put together a Google Doc titled “Life in Eugene,” where students can find resources and recommendations for anything from where to get a haircut to where to find certain types of food, entertainment and more.

“I like the support [the organization] creates because it doesn’t have to be about school all the time or how to apply for a grant or how to find a GE position. It’s about life and being there for each other,” said Abuhmaid.

Moving to Eugene from Oakland, California, was an adjustment for Ana Hernandez as well. Having come from a city with a lot of racial diversity, she knew the transition would be difficult, she said. She looked to join Latinx student organizations when she got to campus, but most were geared toward undergraduate students, she said.

“When I came into the program, one concern I had for myself or just coming to Eugene in general was, ‘Am I going to find people who look like me, who speak another language that I also speak, who have similar cultural or religious or just different types of values,’” said Hernandez. “There are things that I really value about my different identities and like just finding people with similar values was important to me.”

Hernandez volunteered to help with last year’s Diversity Dinner and applied to be on the executive board this year. She now serves as Creating Connections’ student relations officer.

The four graduate students who make up the executive board all echoed feelings of isolation within their programs due to the lack of time and inter-departmental connections. For them, this organization has helped them form friendships with those who are facing similar things, they said.

“Upon arriving to Eugene, I immediately felt different and Creating Connections was my way of finding graduate students that looked like me and were experiencing the same thing,” said Helen Toloza, the board’s internal communications coordinator.

Creating Connections is only in its first year of being an officially recognized student group but has already proven to be successful in bringing underrepresented populations of graduate students together. By the end of this year’s dinner, attendees were exchanging contact information and making plans to meet up, members of the board said.

“I hope that every year from now on, the Diversity Dinner continues to grow in size and that the various graduate departments continue to support our goals through their donations,” said Toloza.

Creating Connections is supported by the Center on Diversity and Community, which is part of the UO Division of Equity and Inclusivity. For more information, visit its Facebook page.

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