Upper-year peers ease first-year fears in online program

As part of new supports at Western this year, 100 peer leaders are helping first-year students adapt to online learning.

Fourth-year music student Ellita Gagner remembers how it felt to transition from high school to university.

“You are starting a new chapter of your life, you’re living away from your parents. It can be difficult. It was stressful, and we were here physically,” she said. In this fall term like no other, “this year’s cohort must feel it even more so.”

Gagner is applying that empathy as one of 100 upper-year peer leaders helping first-year students adapt to university expectations and online learning as part of Western’s first, course-based academic success program.

The program is a collaboration between Student Experience and five faculties: engineering, information and media studies, music, science and social science. It connects upper-year, undergraduate peer leaders with first-year students enrolled in a number of select first-year courses being taught online this fall, to help them develop healthy friendships and the skills to thrive.

The program derives from research showing friendships built at the beginning of first-year courses are key to long-term postsecondary success – a concept Gagner experienced first-hand.

“I’m in fourth year and I pretty-much met all my friends in first year. Especially with music, because we are all such a tight-knit community and take all the same classes, basically, during first and second year. It makes it a lot easier to make those close friendships within those courses.

You need those connections, that inner circle, especially from an academic standpoint. These are the people you study with, ask questions to, and clarify ideas you heard from the lecture. It is a huge part of learning, having that social circle. I found it really valuable.” ~ Peer leader Ellita Gagner

Gagner meets virtually with a group of approximately 25 students each week, helping them identify their strengths and develop the academic skills they need to thrive throughout first term and beyond.

The program, overseen by Kim Miller, director of academic support and engagement, has been designed with defined outcomes for each week of its 14-week run throughout the first semester.

“The end result for the first-year student at the end of first-term is that they will have created a thriving toolkit,” Miller said. “As students participate week by week and engage in activities and reflections, ideally they will be building the study skills that make the most sense for them; resources they know they can access; and their network, whether those are peers, faculty or staff. And students who participate in the weekly sessions as well as complete their toolkit will earn a certificate and co-curricular record credit.”

The value of the program is not limited to first-year students, with peer leaders and graduate coaches alike gaining employment and an in-depth understanding of campus resources and how best to support students and make appropriate referrals.

“It’s a unique opportunity for them to be able to use and develop skills that help build virtual communities,” Miller said. “We know in online learning, community-building doesn’t always happen, which can affect learning outcomes. Leaning in and learning how to make that successful is a really important skill to have.”

Designed to support online learners, the academic success program is a new addition to the existing menu of mentoring programs available to students. Students not enrolled in one of the participating courses are encouraged to connect with a mentor in their faculty through the Leadership & Academic Mentorship Program.



Back to school: A fall term like no other, September 2020