University of Rochester

Graduate Students Get a Room of Their Own

October 23, 2009

Until this fall, Rush Rhees Library offered only three study carrels for graduate students and kept a waiting list about 70 deep for those coveted spaces. "It took five or six years to get a carrel," explains librarian Suzanne Bell. "You could finish your degree first."

Now, from their first day on campus, graduate students have a room in the library to call home. Opened in August, the Messinger Graduate Study North offers master's and doctoral candidates a place to park their books, plug in their laptops, and get lost in serious work — all while sipping a latte, if they so choose. A second graduate study is scheduled for completion in May.

"I love it," says Kristina Wilson, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, already a regular visitor to the room just weeks after its opening. "I love the comfortable chairs, the big windows, the carpeting, and the quiet." Wilson says in previous years she "did a lot of wandering around campus" looking for a good study niche to give her a break from the windowless, chilly, and somewhat noisy laboratory where her desk is located. The graduate study, she says, answers that quest: "It's scholastic yet comfortable."

That perfect fit is no accident. The design of the room was a by-product of two years of interviews, anthropological studies, and focus groups with graduate students to assess their needs – the same innovative model that was used to develop the popular undergraduate Gleason Library, which opened in 2007. The research showed that graduate students wanted a space that felt welcoming, "kind of like a living room," says Bell, who coordinated the student-led planning process.

The result is an interior design in warm maroon tones that combines homey wing-backed chairs and a coffee table with the more traditional trappings of a library, reading tables and carrels. On three sides, seven large windows, including one in stained glass given by the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries, flood the room with natural light. White marker boards, several computers and a printer offer the functionality of an office; forty eight wooden lockers provide secure storage; and top-of-the-line ergonomic desk chairs guarantee comfort during long study sessions. "Seating was terribly important for graduate students," emphasizes Bell.

The $230,000 renovation of the Graduate Study North was made possible through a gift from Martin E. Messinger '49, senior trustee of the University, who also funded the renovation of the Messinger Periodical Reading Room, which opened in 1998. His decision this spring to underwrite the creation of a second graduate student room at the other end of the Periodical Reading Room will complete the restoration of the entire second floor of the west wing of Rush Rhees Library.

Along with individual study, both graduate student rooms are envisioned as a gathering spot. Research showed that graduate students, especially those in the humanities and in master's programs, often ended up working at home in isolation, says Susan Gibbons, Vice Provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries. "They didn't feel connected to the University," she says. "This space is designed to help them feel like part of a larger community."

Wendi Heinzelman agrees. As dean of graduate students in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering, she thinks the room will "provide students the opportunity to interact across disciplinary boundaries that often define much of a graduate student's time on campus."