An award-winning program led by UT Austin Biomedical Engineering graduate students strives to promote inclusion for Graduate Teaching Assistants and encourage open communication.

Originally founded by graduate student Nikhith Kalkunte in the Fall of 2020, the BME Peer-Led TA Support Program received funding from the Cockrell Center for Equity in Engineering in 2022.

Noah And PowerPoint MAIN

Kalkunte said he started the program after realizing the variety of difficulties TAs face when he became a TA during his first semester. To overcome the tough balance of coursework and TA duties, he sought advice from older graduate students and realized they were a wealth of information for sharing materials along with tips and tricks to make life easier.

“The program began as a beginning of semester orientation for biomedical engineering TAs to be equipped with BME-specific resources. In this orientation, we would have small group conversations around the challenges one can expect as a TA and practice case studies modeling TA-student, TA-instructor, and TA-research conflicts. This realization, that the information I craved was within my own department in the experience of older graduate students, really was the spark for this program. It's kind of an obvious conclusion, now, that the best teachers of how to be a TA are older students who have TA’d before,” said Kalkunte.

In its latest iteration, the program helps TAs feel connected and part of a community. The program is specifically put together with a focus on encouraging open communication, sharing positive/inclusive learning practices, and developing strategies to manage being a TA with the multitude of other responsibilities that graduate students must juggle. Throughout the semester, group discussions with structured presentations are held while providing a space for TAs to share “roses and thorns” about their experiences.

TA support pod

This includes what has and has not worked for them, what they are excited or anxious about, and past or present TA experiences.

“One of the most tangible impacts of this program are the honest conversations we have in our check ins. It’s almost like a group therapy session where we get to talk about problems we encounter and share advice on how to handle difficult conversations and topics. To me, the peer leadership of this program is its biggest impact. Graduate school can be an incredibly isolating experience buffeted by serial imposter syndrome and failure. Having peers who you have talked with on a regular basis is vital to success. This program allows that, beginning with the TA experience and expanding into all aspects of the graduate student experience,” said Kalkunte.

Ph.D. Candidate Noah Stern began his degree at UT Austin in the Fall of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. He said that moving across the country and starting a Ph.D. was incredibly isolating and often overwhelming, with the pandemic only exacerbating the situation. While Stern was able to defer his TA responsibilities by a year due to a separate fellowship, many of his friends were not as lucky.

Stern said he saw how taxing it was for them to balance the additional, massive responsibility of being a TA with taking their own courses and trying to join a research group.

“I saw how stressful that was and was honestly scared about what my TA experience would be like the following year. However, after going through what I believe was only the first or second semester Nikhith ran the program the following year, I felt a lot better. “It was a simple thing, but feeling comfortable asking for help and coming to the realization that everyone else was in the same boat demystified the whole experience for me,” said Stern.

Noah and Poster web

As of 2023, Stern is at the helm of the program.

“Leading this program allows me to give back and ensure that the community I felt apart of when I was in need is always there for the next generation of TAs. Graduate school is hard and comes with a lot of unforeseen challenges, so I view any type of supportive community building and open discussion that we can make space for as a huge win,” said Stern.

For Kalkunte, he hopes to see the BME Peer-Led TA Support Program  expand to become a tenant of the biomedical engineering department.

“One of the major reasons I chose to pursue my Ph.D. at UT was that I saw a dynamic culture wherein faculty and staff are receptive and act on student sentiment. This program is a perfect example of that, wherein us students are working to improve the graduate student experience. We have received positive support from department leaders and are excited to see this program grow and flourish,” said Kalkunte.