Women gather for lunch and conversation at the graduate Women’s Exchange on Oct. 12, in the Packer House. This is Associate Deputy Provost Kathleen Hutnik’s 16th year hosting graduate events. (Erin Smith-Dills/B&W Staff)

The Women’s Exchange provides a home away from home


Graduate life at Lehigh may fly under the radar with over 5,000 undergraduate students spanning Lehigh’s campuses, yet there are almost 2,000 graduate students working toward higher-level degrees while simultaneously balancing work, family, friends and life.

The Graduate Education and Life office works to help graduate students combat stress by providing them with bonding activities, one of these being the Women’s Exchange.

The Women’s Exchange is a biweekly support group for women where the office provides lunch, activities and open conversation. Kirsten Sneeringer, the assistant director of the office, said the Women’s Exchange is open to all women as a way to bring women graduate students together in a safe space.

“It’s a really relaxing event all about taking a break and enjoying each other’s company,” Sneeringer said. “Sometimes the events are strategically planned, with staff coming in to talk about what they do and why they love their work or women (coming) in to talk about their path and how they manage family and work.”

Kathleen Hutnik, the associate deputy provost for graduate education, used to work for Disability Support Services at Lehigh. She said when her current position opened up, she was interested because of the impact it has on graduate students’ daily lives.

She said the role of the office is to try to provide a space for graduate students to relax and remember their humanity.

“We try to remind them that it’s beneficial to make time for themselves — for exercise, for sleep, for reaching out to parents and the stuff that will help keep them going,” Hutnik said.

If there was something she could do to help maximize the best of times and minimize the worst of times during a graduate student’s career, Hutnik said she would do it.

As she works with several students, Hutnik said the office sees common struggles like anxiety and depression in students, which studies show that the experience of grad school can exacerbate these challenges

“Bottom line is that students can come to us and tell us about anything they need for us to be the best support system we can be,” Sneeringer said.

She said this manifests in different forms, like at their last meeting where they discussed how different cultures deal with menstrual cramps around the world. They have had planned activities like baking bread and touring current art galleries, whereas sometimes there is no structure and instead simply spontaneous conversation.

Karla Rincon Martinez, ‘26G, is pursuing a doctorate in electrical engineering and said the Women’s Exchange is great for taking a step back from academia, getting to know her peers and connecting with people from different backgrounds.

“I feel very welcome here,” Martinez said. “It helps me recharge my batteries, and I always try to work around my schedule in order to make it to these events.”

The Graduate Education and Life office also sets up other events throughout the semester like the Grad Student Outing Club, where they organize outdoor group activities on the weekends and a weekly breakfast on Tuesdays at 10 a.m., providing an assortment of coffee, tea, fruit, and baked goods. An average of 75 students attend this get-together.

Hutnik said the office doesn’t have a large budget, so they are cognizant of costs and how they can save money while simultaneously hosting a quality event.

For some events, like their apple-picking excursion on Oct. 21, they had to consider renting a bus since many students don’t have a car. Hutnik said they may charge a small amount to ensure commitment from the students.

When necessary, the office looks for co-sponsors, but only when it’s appropriate.

“We try to make these events affordable, useful, inclusive, accessible and fun,” Hutnik said. “We really want students to come away from it feeling a little more relaxed, connected and helpful. When we plan events and programs, we look for why they will be beneficial.”

Women’s Exchange gathers every other Thursday at the Packer House, located on West Packer Avenue.

Hutnik said she hopes the Packer House can be a home away from home for graduate students to facilitate support.

“It’s good for everyone and great for their creativity,” Hutnik said. “We feel our role is absolutely integral to grad student success and completion of degrees.”

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