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A Gem of a Program

How students use the Graduate Student-at-Large suite of programs to fine-tune their goals and chart their paths into the future.

Written by Philip Baker
UChicago campus during the fall.

When Founding President William Rainey Harper included university extension as a critical part of his vision for the University of Chicago, he established a revolutionary idea for what an elite university could be.

Not just a cloistered campus set apart from the world, university extension would connect the University of Chicago to the city and the world at large, promoting engagement, dialogue, and growth.

Today, the University of Chicago’s Graduate Student-at-Large suite of programs continues to uphold Harper’s vision and extend it further, inviting anyone with a four-year college degree to earn credit taking undergraduate- and graduate-level courses after meeting prerequisites.  No degree is involved; but there are limitations to how many courses can be taken per quarter, and per admitted program.

“When Harper founded the University, he was ahead of his time with the idea of involving practitioners and scholars from all over to come in and change the balance of the elite cohort group of students,” says GSAL director Esther Pandian-Riske. “He understood how these nontraditional students can come in and change that balance and add new perspectives to the classroom setting. He saw how important that is.”

From the GSAL program to the Graduate Student-at-Large: Business (GSALB) program, through which students take for-credit classes at the Chicago Booth School of Business, and the Returning Scholars program, where lifelong learners go deeper into a subject they’re passionate about, the programs are designed to let students explore different fields of academic study as they determine which program or school is the right fit for them.

“That’s why we encourage our students to go to office hours and take part actively in class,” Pandian-Riske says. “They might enter GSAL intending to bolster their application to law school or graduate school, but through this sort of engagement they’re able to assess their goals with greater care. In the end, it might be a degree in public policy that truly suits them.”

Esther Pandian-Riske, GSAL Program Director

As graduate students-at-large, it’s very important that they receive a proper introduction and that the important connections are made for them so that they can take full advantage of their time at the University.

Esther Pandian-Riske, GSAL Program Director

Bridge into the University

Pandian-Riske and her team provide an indispensable bridge for GSAL students into the University. More than just assisting with class selection, they are full advisers who work closely with students on charting their paths and establishing their goals. They provide the essential tools to navigate the University and its complex array of interconnected parts.

“Our students are nontraditional and they are not coming in as part of a master’s or PhD program cohort,” Pandian-Riske says. “As graduate students-at-large, it’s very important that they receive a proper introduction and that the important connections are made for them so that they can take full advantage of their time at the University.”

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GSAL Program Director Elaborates Further

“If a student wants to take a class in the economics department, I will make sure the student gets to know the department adviser and the faculty who is teaching the class,” she says. “That means there are other academic point people who are connecting with the student and helping them figure out if this is the right class to get them where they want to be once the class has finished.”

Over the course of a nine-week quarter, Pandian-Riske and her team meet with students repeatedly to ensure that everything is on track.

“Esther was absolutely central to my successful journey as a GSALB student,” says Claire Chen, who used GSALB to figure out if getting an MBA was right for her. “In our weekly meetings she pushed me to reflect on my goals and uncover my strengths and weaknesses. She also showed me how Booth would be a great way for me to actualize my dreams. Her advice and encouragement were pivotal throughout the application process as well.”

Chen was accepted to Chicago Booth’s Evening MBA program after taking three classes through GSALB—all of which counted toward her MBA.

Former GSAL student Charles Mudd headshot.

Had it not been for that collegiality and comradery at GSAL and UChicago as a whole, I would not be at this point; the program facilitated this perfect path that I happen to be on now.

Charles Mudd, GSAL Alum

Collegiality and Comradery

GSAL is more than just the classes students take and the meetings they have with Pandian-Riske and her team. Students enter a community of fellow learners, professionals, and scholars. There are weekly get-togethers for happy hours where students share their experiences with others, offer support, and even just relax.

“It’s incredible how many GSAL alumni still want to be a part,” Pandian-Riske says. “They want to remain on our program’s email list because they want to remain engaged. They still feel like they belong and they end up mentoring, offering jobs, and doing a lot of coaching for our students and encouraging them to make use of all they have access to as GSAL students.”

What do GSAL students have access to in the UChicago community? The short answer is: everything. Pandian-Riske mentions the University of Chicago libraries, the gymnasium, UChicago GRAD, as well as the counselors and coaches at the wellness center. “And another very important thing is academic workshops,” says Pandian-Riske. “There are more than 400 academic workshops on this campus and I encourage them to attend the relevant and valuable ones.”

“The GSAL program has been so fantastic for me because it’s allowed me to grow—not just academically but also personally and professionally,” says Charles Mudd, a lawyer who came to GSAL looking to expand his lifelong hobby of astrophysics. The experience was sufficiently transformative that he began attending conferences on space law and policy at the United Nations. His law firm now focuses on internet and technology policy.

“Had it not been for that collegiality and comradery at GSAL and UChicago as a whole, I would not be at this point; the program facilitated this perfect path that I happen to be on now. I’ve received so much encouragement and support.”

Something for Everyone

In sum, GSAL and its suite of programs offer compelling options for learners at nearly every stage of their lives and careers. With access to classes across the University of Chicago’s undergraduate and graduate divisions—as well as at the Chicago Booth School of Business through GSALB—students enroll to expand their knowledge, hone their transcripts for graduate school applications, or arrive at decisions too difficult to make without testing out the waters firsthand. Only medical school courses and labs are not available to GSAL students.

“In my nine years here, I’ve worked with students in their early twenties to students in their late nineties,” Pandian-Riske says. “Each one is unique and the GSAL program gives them all a chance to explore their goals and interests at the highest level possible as they proceed to their next step in life. That’s why this is a gem of a program.”

Explore more about UChicago Professional Development’s GSAL programs today.

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