Gitana Garofalo, Associate Director of Academic Services, is the key point person for the graduate students to the UW's Department of Biostatistics.
“There’s an invisible curriculum, especially for first-generation, underrepresented, and international students,” says Garofalo, who advises roughly 90 master’s and PhD Biostatistics students. “It can trip up the most promising students.”
That unseen curriculum includes knowing how to network, apply for conference travel funding, or find a thesis/dissertation advisor. It may mean learning how to develop work/life balance, find a tutor, build a professional wardrobe, or access campus services such as career counseling or the Veteran’s Center. For international students, it could mean help with how to make small talk or find furniture and beds; after all, they don’t exactly arrive at the UW with a moving truck.
“Graduate school is challenging for everybody – it’s just challenging in different ways,” says Garofalo. “I’m invested in helping students achieve lifespan success. To me, it’s not just what happens in the classroom, but every aspect of life because it is so inter-connected.”
She also helps students get to know the program and the city, links them up with faculty advisors, and introduces them to bike routes, dance classes, hiking trails, and grocery stores carrying favorite foods.
“It’s about humanizing the graduate school experience as best I can,” Garofalo says.
It’s also about being a “thinking partner” to students and helping them develop the tools they need to navigate graduate school and beyond. “The students have tons of information and skills,” she says. “Sometimes I just help by giving a different perspective.”
Garofalo knows that a graduate student advisor would have helped her in her own academic career. She attended graduate school, but due to interdepartmental conflicts and a lack of advising, she left and moved to Seattle with only $300 and a Greyhound bus ticket. Since then, she’s worked with bilingual immigrant and refugee communities and vulnerable populations (including abused and neglected children), at a writer’s retreat on a nearby island, and at the UW’s Center for Women & Democracy. She earned a master’s degree from Seattle University in bilingual mental health counseling with an additional focus on career advising.
She cites a theme in her varied career and upbringing: a fascination with and commitment to creativity and lifespan learning. Growing up in rural areas around the US and the world (Mississippi, the upper Midwest, Ireland, and on Standing Rock Sioux lands in North Dakota), Garofalo and her siblings were homeschooled by their Civil Rights activist parents. Gitana, fittingly, means “gypsy” in Spanish.
A graduate of Wellesley College, Garofalo has studied and worked in Belgium, France, Guatemala, and Mexico. “I know what it’s like to be an international student and outside of your comfort zone,” she says.
All of her life experience – including as a writer, translator, dancer, actor, and therapist – plays a role in her advising. “Humans are all about telling stories,” she says. “Much of Biostatistics is about translating data into information. I seek to help students tell their story better to colleagues and nonscientists. ”
She adds: “The students here are not just learning content. They’re caring, curious, and community-minded innovators. They’re my inspiration.”