A common perception about graduate studies is that it can be isolating and lonely. Graduate students spend a lot of time doing research independently, sometimes earning them the reputation of being academic hermits. Xiao Yang Fang, a PhD student in the Department of Community Health Sciences and the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) vice-president external, is doing her part to change that.
Fang, an international student originally from the Netherlands, felt a disconnect when she arrived at UCalgary. “I didn’t know anybody, and all my classes were either online or at the Foothills campus so I didn’t feel like I was really part of the university.”
With a desire to build a stronger sense of community, Fang decided to create an online platform that would map out the social connections between UCalgary graduate students. The idea was inspired by Stanley Milgram’s Six Degrees of Separation.
Everyone is connected through six degrees of separation
“The hypothesis is that everyone is connected with everyone else in the world through six degrees of separation. So theoretically, everyone should be able to know everyone on campus by knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone etc.”
Working together with Eric Eidelberg, a graduate student she recruited from the Department of Computer Science, Fang created Cam-Unity (a word play on camera and community). “Eric is very skilled and enthusiastic,” says Fang of Eidelberg. “Without him the project would not be possible.”
“At first, [Cam-Unity] was a project to add to my growing portfolio and a way to hone my skills at Web development,” says Eidelberg. “After meeting with Yangyang, it also became a cool thing to do and a great way to connect graduate students across faculties.”
How Cam-Unity works
Here’s how Cam-Unity works: a UCalgary Dino figurine is passed from one graduate student to another. Whoever receives the Dino is invited to take a picture of themselves with it and to post this on the Cam-Unity platform along with a short six-question bio. Once the student has uploaded their picture and profile, they pass the Dino onto a fellow graduate student, who will repeat the process. Gradually, a web of connections will begin to form.
On why the Dino figurine was chosen, Fang explained, “it is a symbol that anchors all UCalgary students to one common identity. Passing the Dino figurine is supposed to remind us that We are all Dinos; that somehow, we’re all in this together.”
'We’re defined by more than our research interests'
One of the participants, Taylor Woo, a master’s student in Biological Sciences, said he very much enjoyed taking part in the project and believes that the site will have a positive effect on the University community.
“The Cam-Unity project has the potential to create a greater sense of community by highlighting the incredible diversity and talent of graduate students at the University of Calgary,” says Woo. “It can emphasize that as grad students we’re defined by more than our research interests.”
Fang is excited to see the evolution of the site and hopes that it will help bring graduate students closer together.