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Building a Strong Community: A Key Step in Entomology Student Life

Group hike

Even pre-pandemic, life as a graduate student in entomology or other scientific fields can make it difficult to build social connections and find one’s place in a community. Entomology graduate student Elizabeth Bello (third from left) says creating or growing social groups as an important part of a healthy student work-life balance. Pictured here are (left to right) Annaliese Wargin, Melissa Sanchez, Bello, and Emily Struckhoff on a hiking trip at Rim Rock National Recreational Trail in Southern Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Bello)

By Elizabeth Bello

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Elizabeth Bello

Elizabeth Bello

With many of us feeling the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and self-isolation, some more than others, one thing is for certain: We all previously underestimated the importance of our social circles. Something as simple as going out for coffee with a friend or stopping in the hallway to catch up with someone has become something we miss and regret ever having taken it for granted.

But, even without COVID-19 looming over our heads, it can be difficult to connect with one another and feel a gratifying and supportive sense of community. As entomologists and scientists, we’re constantly busy and there often isn’t much time for community-building moments. We focus on our work, whether it be collecting specimens or running experiments during field season or doing data analysis in the off season, and there is always work to be done. Science disciplines are highly rigorous and competitive, which can also add to feelings of isolation. In entomology specifically, we tend to socialize with others whose work is most related to our own, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to separation and smaller social circles. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way, and we can always work together to change things. Here, I’ll share some tips on how entomology students can either join and contribute to an existing community or create their own.

The Science

Any general biology or psychology course will teach you that, as human beings, we are social creatures. The top three tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are based on the fulfillment of friendship, intimacy, family, and a sense of connection. That last one is really important, especially if you’re a graduate student with a high stress level. These are all areas of human interaction that can bring us deep happiness and satisfaction. As an important part of who we are, it’s  crucial that we know how to establish a sense of belonging. While joining a pre-existing community can be a lot easier than building one, the following steps are a great start toward fostering meaningful relationships with your peers.

Goal Setting

The first step is to identify your goals. Are you looking to join a pre-existing community or social group? Do you want to form your own? What is the purpose of the group: To study? To enjoy recreational activities like hiking or collecting insects? To volunteer and participate in charity events like building a community pollinator-friendly garden? Or maybe you’re just looking to host weekly social hours or entomology trivia game nights.

For me, I wanted to become closer with my peers and build relationships that would not only foster better study habits but also give us the opportunity to bond and enjoy life away from work and classes. Whatever the reason, make sure you have a clear idea of why you want to build a new community.

The Who

Once you have set your goals, it’s time to identify the who (no, not the English rock band). These are your target group members. Would you like to connect with other graduate students, other entomologists, or maybe people in a completely different field than you? Where are your audience members located? It will most likely be easiest to build a community with people in close proximity to you, but it’s certainly not impossible to form virtual groups that meet online regularly.

My audience members, for example, were the other first-year graduate students in my cohort. We had all met one another during the recruiting weekend but, because of the pandemic, we hadn’t interacted as a group since February 2020. Knowing who your audience is a great start, but you will need to figure out how to reach these people. Do you have their contact information, or do you need to make some fliers?

Passion

You’ve identified your goals and target audience, but now what? Another important aspect to think about is the passion shared between you and your group members. Finding a commonality will help strengthen your community. Knowing what everyone is passionate about will also give you ideas on how to increase engagement with one another. While having something in common will help you immediately, it isn’t wrong to form a diverse group where you can all learn from one another, as well.

Benefits and Perks

Aside from the obvious benefits of fulfilling our social needs, there is strength is numbers. Everyone in your group will be able contribute a unique experience, point of view, or idea that you can all talk about and engage with. Maybe you’re struggling with an experiment for your research, and someone has advice. Or maybe you need one last insect for your collection, and your friend knows the just the right place to collect them. The benefits of your newly formed community can include exercise, finding new places to eat, or new places to go bug hunting. Or, if one of the goals of your group is to create a university club, another benefit could be financial support and resources that you couldn’t otherwise access as individuals.

Opportunity to Give Back

Volunteer work and charity events are another great way to foster community. Finding a common cause to stand behind and unite will strengthen any group. Organizing a trash pick-up in a local park, running a 5k to help raise awareness for a cause, or starting a fundraiser for something you’re passionate about, like building a living wall or pollinator zones, are all great (and free) ways to bond with one another and take pride in the work you’re doing together.

Finding Your Niche

This might seem obvious or redundant with finding a common passion, but it’s more about creating a unique group. For example, your group can be passionate about eating burgers, but your niche as a smaller community can be linked with services or events you provide, like promoting food-security awareness or hosting food drives. This is a general example, but the same could apply to an entomology-related niche. If you’re passionate about food, maybe consider the best ways to eat insects. Crickets, for example, are packed with protein and can be much more sustainable than red meat. In short, where would your group fit into the larger scheme of things? If there is already a group doing something similar, maybe you could join forces and help bring new ideas to the table.

Don’t Do It Alone

Like I said before, there is strength in numbers. Even if you just connect with one other person, they’ll connect with another and then another, and soon you’ll have a whole group of people wanting to play games or have a monthly cricket cook off! The most important part to remember is that any relationship is a two-way street. We’re all busy bees and we have our own lives, but if no one reaches out or makes that first attempt, none of this will be possible. We sometimes expect others to take the first leap but, more often than not, they’re thinking we’ll do the same.

If you’re afraid to try, that’s okay, but do it anyway! Do it afraid. The worst-case scenario is that it doesn’t work out, but at least you know you tried. Besides, you can always try again. On the other hand, the best-case scenario is that you’ve helped unite and bond an entire group of people who will be grateful and happy to participate.

Graduate school and life in general can be incredibly challenging—especially in our post-pandemic world—but I’m a firm believer that it’s the people around us who get us through the toughest times. Our studies and research are important, but we need moments of peace and joy and human interaction to truly feel satisfied. After all, we are all in this together.

Elizabeth Bello is a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Physiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology Section Representative to the Entomological Society of America’s Student Affairs Committee. Twitter: @insects247. Email: ebello2@illinois.edu.

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