Light & Verity

Making a place for grad students

Lisa Brandes '94PhD helped build a community.

Harold Shapiro

Harold Shapiro

Lisa Brandes ’94PhD (left) with PhD graduates, preparing to march in commencement in 2019. View full image

When Lisa Brandes ’94PhD saw a notice in the October 1995 Yale Alumni Magazine announcing Yale’s plans to create the McDougal Graduate Student Center, she was more than intrigued. This new center, she thought, had the potential to supply what she’d felt was missing in her own time as a PhD student at Yale: a genuine sense of community and belonging among graduate students. She applied to be the first director of the center, and the hiring committee (chaired by Peter Salovey ’86PhD) brought her back to Yale. In May, after 25 years, Brandes retired as the head of the McDougal Center Graduate Student Life office.

She still lights up when she talks about the center. When it officially opened, in 1997, Brandes appointed the first four McDougal Fellows—graduate students who were charged with a wide range of tasks, including running social and multicultural events, organizing community service opportunities, and serving as diversity liaisons. Today, there are 60-plus McDougal Fellows. They act as writing tutors, peer mentors within various affinity groups, and social organizers, among other roles. Brandes helped establish many of the traditions that today’s grad students probably take for granted, such as the matriculation ceremony at the start of term.

She also expanded graduate-student orientation, from a two-hour session to a week of useful workshops and friendly social events.

One of her proudest achievements: the baby-changing tables in the McDougal Center and in many campus restrooms. Brandes wanted the campus to be truly family-friendly for the grad students, their partners, and their children. When she first began advocating for changing stations, they were unheard of. But she stuck with it; today, changing stations are a given for all new construction at Yale (and there are many lactation rooms as well). She also went out of her way to organize social events specifically for students with families.

Brandes sees the McDougal Center’s building, at 135 Prospect Street, as a “home away from home” for students, a “third place where people meet and socialize. It’s not their work, and it’s not their apartment or dorm.” The McDougal Center’s lounge area offers free coffee and tea, comfortable spaces for studying or chatting, and a sunny courtyard—which has been a convenient place to hold socially distanced outdoor events during the pandemic.

Over the years, Brandes has also fostered the idea that commitment to grad-student life doesn’t end with commencement. An active member of the Yale Alumni Association herself, she emphasizes that integrating graduate students more fully into the Yale community will produce more engaged alumni, with a stronger sense of connection to their alma mater.

Brandes plans to stay engaged in her retirement, too. She’ll be doing her own writing. But she’ll also volunteer at the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, and the Yale Club of New Haven, among other places. And she’ll do consulting on graduate-student life.

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