Every three years, all enrolled graduate students are invited to respond to a survey asking how they feel about the climate and leadership at Virginia Tech and in their colleges and programs.

Questions also focus on whether students feel supported and safe and whether they are receiving the mentoring they need. The aim of the survey is to help the Graduate School foster an inclusive and diverse community of students across all programs, said Kacy Lawrence, director of assessment and strategic initiatives.

Using the last three surveys, which have similar questions, Lawrence created a tool for users to compare results and track trends across the surveys. The dashboard includes demographic data as well as information about student responses by program or college.

The climate survey is rooted in a 2009 questionnaire created by graduate student leaders to gather their peers’ thoughts on campus climate. While fewer than 10 percent of students enrolled on campus responded, their answers suggested that they felt supported on campus. In 2012, another group of students wanted to conduct an updated survey and reached out to units across campus. The Graduate School, Student Affairs, and what was then the Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion worked with the students to craft a survey, which was administered in 2013. Since then, the Graduate School has conducted a climate survey every three years. Lawrence said the questions changed from 2013 to 2016, and again in 2019. Even with the changes, trends can be seen in the collected data.

Lawrence said 27 percent of all enrolled graduate students, or 1,795, responded to the survey. Responses came from students on the Blacksburg; Roanoke; the greater Washington, D.C., region; Hampton Roads; and Richmond campuses and from students enrolled in virtual degree programs.

Image of graphs associatd with the latest climate survey study
The dashboard for the latest climate survey

“I am very pleased the response rate has increased each year we conduct the survey,” Lawrence said. “The only way to truly understand the student experience is to have as many students take the survey as possible.”

Lawrence said the 2019 and 2022 surveys asked students about four climate elements at both the campus and department level: Is the campus or department diverse, friendly, and inclusive and is the overall climate of the campus or department good?

Additional questions focused on whether students felt included or isolated in their departments, whether they felt administrators cared about them, whether they had enough resources and support for their work, and whether the department fosters a collegial atmosphere.

Lawrence said overall, students have a more favorable view of the climate in their departments as opposed to their campus. More than 90 percent of respondents said their department was friendly, and 95 percent said their primary mentors were influential in their progress. They also said their departments were collegial.

She noted there is plenty of room for improvement across the campuses and programs. Students reported that the university, as a whole, needed to work on supporting people with disabilities, both visible and invisible and the transgender community. Respondents expressed concerns about improving inclusion and diversity at the campus and university level, as well.

“It would be easy to look at the results and say how great we are doing because more than 80 percent of respondents said the overall climate on campus is good,” Lawrence said. “However, these data show that positive responses have decreased on some key questions, and when we disaggregate the data, we find that students across various demographic groups have different experiences.”

The four survey reports and results can be found on the Graduate School’s climate survey website, which includes the interactive dashboard that compares results across the 2016, 2019, and 2022 surveys. Users can select universitywide results or choose specific campuses, colleges, or programs. They also can view results based on demographics.

Several program directors and faculty members dip into the data to help them gauge students’ needs and concerns. David Kniola, assistant professor of practice, said the information is particularly useful for the School of Education.

“The climate survey conducted by the graduate school plays a central role in our understanding of students' lived experiences in our school,” he said. “The school's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [DEI] committee uses this data to inform the types of activities we pursue and to make policy recommendations. For example, we heard from many of our underrepresented and minority students that they felt disconnected from opportunities to do research. Our Research in DEI group responded by creating a regular and ongoing program to connect faculty and graduate student researchers with shared interests.”   

Trey Waller, director of graduate student programs in the College of Engineering, agreed with Kniola. He is a fan of the dashboard and its ease of use.

“The data dashboard Kacy Lawrence developed is an important management tool to use in the work we do in the College of Engineering,” said Waller. “This tool is easy to maneuver, and I believe it is useful for faculty, administrators, and staff to track, analyze, and display key data points for us to monitor specific process needs for various departments.”

Graduate School Dean Aimée Surprenant also uses the data and encourages the Virginia Tech community to take advantage of the dashboard and other data available on the data and reports website, which is also available to alumni, members of the public, and prospective students.

Lawrence said she is finalizing the 2022 climate survey report, which will be available on the data and reports website.

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