Thriving Foundations offers new suite of first-year supports

Special to Western News

Thriving Foundations will help students bridge high school life to university and ensure they develop the skills, identity and connections to succeed at Western.

Western will welcome first-year students to campus this fall with a new strategy that offers more sustained support to help them learn, lead and thrive. It’s an all-in approach focused on setting them up for long-term success at university.

Known as Thriving Foundations, the program is in addition to existing Summer Academic Orientation and O-Week, which have traditionally helped students forge friendships, find classrooms and make the transition to postsecondary education.

Even with the success of those two programs, research shows the first six to eight weeks of university life are the most important in building lasting connections and a sense of belonging, said Jennifer Massey, Associate Vice-President (Student Experience).

Positive social, personal, health and academic supports during that time are often the best predictors that a student will progress into upper years and go on to graduate.

To meet that need, Thriving Foundations will help students bridge high school life to university and ensure they develop the skills, identity and connections to succeed at Western.

“We’re building an entire framework that leads to thriving,” Massey said. “We’re also designing a learning ecosystem that starts well before students’ first classes and is integrated throughout their first year.”

The Thriving Foundations strategy was well into the planning stages before COVID-19 changed how and where students will be learning this year.

But the move to a blended format – some online courses, some in-person, some a mix of both – accelerated conversations about how Western will use its expertise in guiding students through digital learning and a digital student experience.

Massey isn’t aware of any other university that has taken such an all-in approach to preparing students for and throughout their first year.

“It’s really comprehensive in having so many stepping-stones they can walk across to attain success in all aspects of their time in university.”

The Thriving Foundations strategy consists of three pillars:

Academic Advantage is a summertime bridge between high school and university that includes a ‘smart start’ non-credit program that supplements high school learning where students may have had an abrupt end to some of their classes.

“We understand that for many students, the Grade 12 year has been disrupted due to COVID-19 and some may be feeling there are gaps in their learning. So Academic Advantage is a chance for them to bolster their knowledge and confidence,” Massey said.

Students who register will get online help from a learning coach to fill any holes in course material and provide a good foundation for credit courses in the fall. Smart Start modules are developed as a collaboration between the Faculty of Education, Registrar and Student Experience.

Academic Advantage will also offer online modules to help students develop learning strategies and skills such as notetaking and academic reading as they prepare to start Western.

Community Connection is a one-day, on-campus experience in which students will meet each other (in small groups) and members of the Western community so that they already have social bonds and the beginnings of friendships before they arrive for classes in the fall.

Students who register for this can pick which date, between July 21-Aug. 10, is best for them. Because of COVID-19 safeguards, only 200 students will be allowed on campus on any given day. Participants will not gather as a large group, however, as they will be divided into smaller groups and face coverings will be required.

Peer Program will provide incoming students with peer coaches, with each of these leaders assigned to connect with approximately 30 students in select large first-year courses. These leaders will organize group activities (many of them online) and check in with students before and throughout the first term.

Student coaches, in paid roles, will spend up to 10 hours per week supporting students: answering questions about on-campus and digital resources, providing access to supports such as learning skills and wellness, and helping their group build social circles within their larger class.

In addition to Thriving Foundations, Western’s longtime, existing programs will also continue to provide supports to first-year students. These include a range of programming in student residence, mentoring & leadership programs, and faculty sophs who connect with first-years in their chosen areas of study.

“All of our work has been intentionally designed to develop student thriving. Western is committed to ensuring we offer the best student experience in Canada, whether it’s online or in person or a combination of both,” Massey said.