Geo-Hydro Discussion Group

How we successfully created a supportive graduate research community across multiple university entities 

A guest blog post by Julia Cisneros and Jorge San Juan

Over four years at the University of Illinois, we successfully developed a supportive community of water and earth surface processes researchers spanning research groups, departments, and laboratories through the graduate student-led Geo-Hydro discussion group. Similar to other universities, researchers studying earth surface processes range across several departments at the University of Illinois. However, most collaborative relationships depend on individual connections or currently funded projects. This means that several students, who are transient members of the university, can experience their entire graduate career without connecting to researchers outside of their immediate office or research group, severely limiting their opportunities to grow a diverse professional network. As graduate students, particularly those who are underrepresented, minoritized, and/or first generation, we found a need for peer mentorship and informal opportunities for research feedback. As the long term leaders and founder of this group, we would like to share how Geo-Hydro has impacted our lives positively and led to lifelong collaborative and supportive relationships. We examine Geo-Hydro’s structure, and how it ensures each member's voices are heard and acted upon. Within this structure, we identify three key parts resulting in successful group creation and a lasting dynamic. We also provide examples from ours and membership experiences, gained through an informal Q&A conversation in November 2020.

Geo-Hydro is a student-led initiative across research groups, graduate programs, and departments on campus who study topics related to water. Geo-Hydro was created by students as a grassroots community to promote discussions and friendships for students across water research. "We [Quinn, Julia, and Roberto] wanted to build a sense of belonging outside of departments, because we were all united by water.” One of our founders, Roberto Fernandez, remembers the initial ways we tried to balance and incorporate a cross-disciplinary membership by remarking "We [Quinn, Julia, and Roberto] discussed this, 'you get a room in Geology, we get the room in Hydro, so we go one week to each other's [buildings]', just to keep the presence in both sides of campus."  Whereas departmental seminars and research group meetings existed, the Geo-Hydro group’s focus was to support graduate students and offer a sense of belonging across campus. This intention was clear during meetings when guest faculty and researchers joined, specifically Jeffrey Kwang notes "[...] when they [professors] actually did come, they knew it was kind of our [the students’] group." For geography students like Mishel Melendez, her background in civil engineering helped her see the value of Geo-Hydro as an opportunity to continue engaging with research groups and resources across campus.

"We wanted to build a sense of belonging outside of departments, because we were all united by water"

-Julia Cisneros

Through Geo-Hydro we organically developed a support network for collaboration, peer mentorship, and informal opportunities for research feedback. As Jorge San Juan notes, ‘most of our first unofficial meetings occurred in hallways’ and we grew organically by booking rooms to meet on a weekly basis. Through time, members like Dimitrios Fytanidis and Heng Wu started encouraging other students to join the group, often fueled by wanting to gain insight from others perspective or to engage in informal discussions but still have formal resources like a white board or a projector. Heng explains her main motivation for joining and consistently going to the group meetings was "I [Heng] think we had the right amount of diversity in research topics." This research diversity allowed us to find a fine balance between different perspectives from inter-departmental peers beyond closer colleagues from the same research group. Ari Felman, one of Geo-Hydros new leaders, says working with students from different, overlapping disciplines allowed him to step away from the “echo chamber” of similar methodologies and engage in a “treasure trove” of new tactics towards approaching his research. This feeling is also shared by many members, like Dimitrios, in that Geo-Hydro offers  "a very informal, friendly way to get feedback from your work and get new ideas" 


Geo-Hydro group amplifies students with underrepresented, minoritized or first generation identities and offers real opportunities for support and mentorship. The group also offered a safe and supportive place where people could be themselves. One founder, Julia Cisneros from Geology, notes that Geo-Hydro offered an opportunity to engage with a diverse group of people who had shared experiences as her.  “It was a guaranteed one time a week where I [Julia] knew I could be around people who were genuinely there to support me." Other students agree and recognize that this environment is not granted in other institutions. In fact, most students who have moved on “really miss” the Geo-Hydro group and wish they had something similar in their current institution. From Jorge San Juan’s perspective, Geo-Hydro provided a safe place to discuss the common insecurities of graduate students and he developed more confidence through sharing his work. Interestingly, the purpose of Geo-Hydro wasn't explicitly to create a safe place for minoritized individuals, but because it was created from the perspective of marginalized students, Roberto Fernandez notes “it just happened”.

"a very informal, friendly way to get feedback"

-Dimitrios Fytanidis

Recommendations to create a supportive research community amongst students:

The geosciences is the least diverse field in STEM, yet Geo-Hydro group has successfully become a supportive research community for students. A majority of the members are from underrepresented and minoritized backgrounds and all members have a sense of belonging and also thrive in a predominantly white institution. This effort is not uncommon, and in similar institutions where resources for supportive networks are lacking, similar communities have been built by grassroots efforts from marginalized students (Gay, 2004). Given the success of Geo-Hydro in creating a supportive research community, how can we emulate this positive environment in other institutions? As founders, leaders, and minoritized researchers, we have the following recommendations:

  • As a student, engage, seek connections, and offer support to your peers. Opportunities such as inter-departmental classes, discussion groups, and student organizations are great opportunities to connect with peers. 
  • As a minoritized student, seek support from people with shared identities to gain a sense of belonging in predominantly white institutions.
  • As a faculty member, support students who identify gaps or lack of resources, amplify their voices, and act on their recommendations.
  • As an EPSP member, continue building and supporting research communities that are created for and by minoritized individuals and students.


Gay, G. 2004. Navigating marginality en route to the professoriate: Graduate students of color learning and living in academia. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 17(2): 265–288.