Graduate School leaders address student questions, concerns at virtual Town Hall

April 09, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Graduate students were given an opportunity to have their questions on Penn State’s response to the novel coronavirus answered during a virtual town hall event today (April 9) hosted by the Penn State Graduate School.

The event, which follows a pair of University Town Halls for faculty, staff and students on March 24, offered graduate students a chance to submit additional questions in advance to be answered by a panel led by Regina Vasilatos-Younken, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School.

Joining Vasilatos-Younken for the hour-long event were:

  • Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost;
  • Sarah Ades, associate dean for graduate student affairs;
  • Michael Verderame, senior associate dean;
  • Stephanie Danette Preston, associate dean for graduate educational equity and chief diversity officer for graduate education; and
  • Roger Brindley, newly arrived vice provost for Global Programs.

The panel discussed a range of issues that graduate students voiced concerned about, including financial support, academic requirements, the impact of research laboratory closures and visa worries for international students, among other matters.

At the start of the event, Vasilatos-Younken offered graduate students some words of support and encouragement as the Penn State community weathered the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

“I want to say emphatically that the Graduate School is committed to the success of every one of our students, and we really appreciate their understanding and flexibility — and frankly, we’re inspired by the resiliency that our students have demonstrated,” Vasilatos-Younken said. 

A major concern expressed by graduate students focused on the status of assistantships, fellowships and traineeships after April 30.

"All graduate students who are paid on traineeships, assistantships or fellowships will have their stipend continued, consistent with their appointment letters they received for the spring," Jones said. "I know there have been some questions about the April 30 date that was provided by President [Eric] Barron — that applies to employees of the University. Students will be covered in the time period indicated in their spring letters.”

When asked about graduate stipends for the upcoming academic year, Vasilatos-Younken said, “At this time, there are no plans by the University to reduce stipend level grades for the upcoming academic year, fall 2020 to spring 2021.”

Preston recognized that some graduate students may be struggling financially due to the pandemic, and offered some resources and guidance for those seeking help.

"We recognize that these are trying times for both our residential graduate students as well as our World Campus students. The University has created an emergency fund for students who are in need, particularly those in urgent need,” she said. “In addition to that, students may access their colleges and their departments, and they may be able to direct you to other funds that may be available."

With Penn State’s recent reduction of research activity, graduate students sought advice on how they could remain on track while working remotely.

"I’m actually a microbiologist and have spent a large chunk of my life in the lab, so I appreciate being able to go into the lab and do those experiments. However, given Gov. [Tom] Wolf’s order to stay at home, as well as the University’s decision to reduce research on campus, if you’re not performing essential research, you should not be coming to campus to do those experiments,” Ades said. “If you are staying at home, you can and should continue to do your research remotely. This is the time to do those data analyses you might have been putting off, to do some writing, to do a proposal, get a draft of a paper, even the introduction of your dissertation started. You can keep up with the literature. Your adviser should also be continuing with group meetings and periodic check ins to help you with these activities.”

As a large segment of the graduate population hails from other countries, numerous questions were posed about expiring visas and remaining in the United States.

Brindley said students with expiring visas or concerns about staying in the country should first speak to their advisers and academic departments. “Every single international student has a slightly different arrangement than the other,” he said, encouraging students to use the Directorate of International Student and Scholarly Advising’s website to help with their documentation.

Commencement was a topic on a number of graduate students’ minds, and Jones talked about Penn State’s plan for a virtual commencement in May, to be followed by an in-person event — still in the early stages of planning — later this fall.

“We’re focused on making May 9 as meaningful as we can make it,” he said. “We are planning in the fall to find a way to invite graduates back to campus for a more intimate, physical celebration.”

Vasilatos-Younken said the Graduate School is also working a special event in addition to the spring commencement. 

“We are working together with all of our graduate programs and colleges to plan some virtual things that will be meaningful to each of our graduating students and recognize that we have a very large graduate school with a diverse number of programs and fields. We want to make sure that we include components in a way that we celebrate the achievement of having your degrees conferred that reflect that diversity.”

Jones concluded by affirming the importance of graduate students to Penn State’s mission as a research-intensive university. He reiterated that the special needs of graduate students have been emphasized since the planning for the institutional response to COVID-19 began in February, and that this commitment will continue as Penn State manages this evolving challenge.

The graduate student Town Hall will soon be archived and available to watch online in its entirety at

Students who viewed the event are asked for their input through a brief survey:

Answers about the Graduate School’s response to the coronavirus pandemic may be found at For the latest information on Penn State’s response to the outbreak, go to


Last Updated September 04, 2020