By John Zhu
Today is a big day for Kirsten Overdahl. It’s the day she gives her departmental seminar—a culmination of her time at Duke, where she has been researching ways to identify and monitor previously unrecognized, potentially harmful chemicals in the environment.
Today also marks the culmination of another of her efforts at Duke—something that’s also aimed at creating a better environment, but in a different sense.
Last summer, Overdahl developed an interactive guide to help Ph.D. students in the Nicholas School of the Environment better understand the options and processes for reporting harassment, discrimination, and other misconducts. Today, The Graduate School is launching an online tool based on Overdahl’s work, expanded to serve all Graduate School Ph.D. and master’s students. The Graduate School’s new guide is available at gradschool.duke.edu/reporting.
Overdahl, who is in the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health program, said she became interested in graduate student mental health—a big concern across graduate education nationally —during her first few years at Duke. As she explored that topic and got involved in various advocacy efforts, including two years as co-president of the Nicholas Ph.D. Advocacy Council, she began to home in on one aspect of the issue.
“It became increasingly clear to me that the problem at an institution like Duke wasn’t that we didn’t have resources to address mental health; I think we have wonderful resources like CAPS,” Overdahl said. “The problem isn’t so much putting out the fires as how the fires are starting. What is causing some of these mental health concerns that we see in graduate students? Why are graduate students struggling with anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, and isolation in their programs?
“There are a lot of different and complicated reasons for that, but one reason that became clear to me—during conversations with fellow students and through doing some research—was that students were finding themselves in situations involving harassment, discrimination, or unhealthy situations where they felt isolated or unsure how to proceed.”
Last summer, Overdahl became one of two inaugural Reimagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) Fellows. In that role, she was asked to examine a variety of topics around better support for Ph.D. students, including what information gaps existed for those who needed to report problematic situations.
“When I accepted the RiDE position, I knew I wanted to take the opportunity to create a tool that would be empowering for folks,” she said. “Most of us have taken trainings on recognizing harassment and discrimination, but we don’t spend much time discussing how that unfolds in the graduate student environment, which is quite different from an undergraduate environment.
“If somebody is experiencing harassment or discrimination in their graduate studies, often they might be feeling stuck and powerless. Sometimes when a grad student is trying to persevere through their degree, they also might hesitate to speak up because they are afraid of consequences that will hurt them professionally. I think it’s easy to convince oneself, ‘I don’t need to get help; I can just power through,’ and that’s when problems start to arise because the issues often continue, harm continues to occur, and meanwhile no one is aware of the problem.”
Overdahl envisioned an easy-to-use, click-through guide that answers some of the most common questions that students have about reporting concerns but might be hesitant to ask. Such a resource would allow students to gain some clarity on their options while maintaining their privacy.
As she embarked on that work, her efforts also intersected with Duke’s reckoning with systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“I was offered the RiDE position on a Friday, and the following Monday, George Floyd was murdered,” she said. “I already knew that this would be an opportunity to wrestle with questions of systemic racism that we needed to confront in The Graduate School, but the timing of those heinous circumstances really, really brought that home to me. I feel humbled to have benefitted from the work of Nicholas School Black Lives Matter and their Racial Equity petition, which informed a lot of my thinking where addressing racial harassment is concerned.”
Overdahl was initially asked to create a one-page flow chart for reporting misconduct, but ended up building a much richer guide and a 20-page report. Her work drew on insights from interviews with students, faculty, and staff, as well as a harassment climate survey that the Nicholas School had conducted.
Using scenario-based paths, her guide walks users through the options and processes for reporting concerns such as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, problems with an advisor, or issues with a fellow student or colleague. The guide also gives succinct overviews of the laws and policies that protect graduate students in those situations, and lists resources to help students get support for their wellbeing and safety.
Last fall, Overdahl shared her completed guide and report with various stakeholders, including The Graduate School. The Graduate School took an interest in the guide and developed it into a resource for all of its Ph.D. and master’s students.
“When we saw what Kirsten had created, it was immediately clear that this was a great idea that helps fill an important need,” said Senior Associate Dean John Klingensmith, one of the Graduate School staff members who worked on the project. “This is something that will help not only students, but faculty and staff as well.”
The Graduate School’s guide retains much of Overdahl’s original concept, but converts it from a PowerPoint document to a web-based tool and expands the scope of the content to cover students in all of the school’s 80-plus programs.
“At The Graduate School, we are always looking for opportunities to partner with our students to create resources that make their Duke experience better,” Senior Associate Dean Jacqueline Looney said. “We are excited that we were able to help expand Kirsten’s work into something that benefits all of our students.”
Overdahl said while the guide tackles just one part of a much larger issue, she hopes it can empower individuals to seek help, or to help others who come to them with a concern.
“The best path forward is often far from clear,” she said. “I genuinely believe that the majority of faculty, staff, and students at Duke want to be helpful, but they don’t always have the information they need to direct students or peers appropriately. Now we’ve taken information access out of the equation. I’m really hopeful that this tool encourages graduate students to recognize and address toxic situations, and that it will help people feel empowered to help others.”