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Tuesday, March 28, 2023 — Houston, TX

Graduate student commons opens in PCF tent

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Nayeli Shad     2/21/23 11:36pm

The first graduate commons opened in PCF 1 on Feb. 13. The commons is available to graduate students 24/7 using their Rice ID and has dining, study and lounge areas.

Seiichi Matsuda, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, said that the idea of creating a graduate commons space similar to that of undergraduate colleges has existed for years but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

David McDonald, director for Housing & Dining, said H&D was tasked at the beginning of 2023 to find a graduate commons space to promote evening dining. Given limited open spaces on campus, H&D selected PCF 1 which was being used as an event space rather than a classroom this semester and repurposed the space after the scheduled events passed.

“The way I described it to the GSA and the Dean’s office was primarily [by saying], ‘Look, this is a functional space for all sorts of things, right?’” McDonald said. “Basically, we tried to make it like an undergraduate commons for graduate students.”

McDonald said that the existence of this large commons should encourage more graduate students to purchase dinner plans and will allow for an increase in the number of lunch plans available next semester.

Daniela del Río, a second-year Ph.D. student in applied physics, visited the new graduate commons for the first time on Feb. 17. She said she heard about the new space through the graduate student email digest and decided to visit because she has a lunch meal plan at South Servery.

“It’s nice a space opened up for eating here,” del Río said. “But the thing is people are not used to congregating and eating here, so maybe it would not be an easy transition.”

Del Río said she doesn’t know if she would continue to use the space because of the lack of graduate students present when she visited.

“Even though it’s a nice space, there’s not as much life in the sense of finding friends casually here as there is, for example, in the RMC,” del Río said. “Perhaps it’s just, like, letting time pass, and people will come, but I don’t think that would be the case, because you either need to bring your own food here, or bring it from a servery or buy it somewhere else and then eat it here. But then, would it be more practical to eat it where you bought the food?”

Matsuda said low use is likely due the space opening in the middle of the year.

“I think people establish their routine, and I think most people have not have not yet been to this area,” Matsuda said. “I think it’s going to pick up considerably in use.”

Simon Fern, a third-year sociology Ph.D. student, said he heard about the new commons from the listserv email but has not yet visited it because he doesn’t have a Rice meal plan or often eat on campus due to how expensive it is, and he would prefer to hang out in offices or other spaces.

“It feels like an instance of, there is this leftover tent, we don’t know what to do with the tent, we will just give the tent to the graduate students,” Fern said. “It’s not the most appealing venue. With the resources that Rice has, we could probably get a nicer space. This feels like an example of disinvestment in the graduate student community.”

Due to busy schedules and other factors, del Río said that it seems unlikely that graduate students with meal plans at serveries or offices in academic buildings on the north side of campus will come to the new commons. 

“The problem of [graduate] students is we’re not located in a specific area of campus. I think it’s hard to concentrate all of us in one space,” del Río said.

Matsuda said that the PCF tent is a temporary solution while the structure exists, but it is a first step in the direction of having a common space for graduate students.

“It really gives grad students, for the first time, a kind of space in which to build community that has benefited much of the rest of the campus,” Matsuda said.

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