When Ethan Li arrives at Western this fall, he’ll bring a peace of mind and confidence he gained attending Community Connections, an optional, immersive experience for incoming students.
Li, who’s pursuing an honors specialization in politics, philosophy and economics, registered for the session looking “to figure out the general vibe of campus and the culture of the school,” he said.
He was also seeking reassurance. “I was nervous that maybe I wouldn’t fit into Western, or perhaps I made the incorrect choice,” he said.
But the opportunity to connect with staff and student leaders, and members of his incoming class dissolved all doubts. “The energy here was so positive and inclusive,” he said. “From the moment I walked in, I knew this is exactly where I wanted to be.”
Community Connections is a pillar of Thriving Foundations, a three-part program that helps students transition from high school to Western. It also includes: academic advantage, where students develop skills for first-year success and get help selecting courses, and the academic success program, which pairs students with upper-year peer leaders who provide mentorship, wayfinding and academic support.
Leslie Gloor Duncan, associate director, leadership, transition and enrichment (Student Experience), said research shows incoming students who connect early with staff and resources are more likely to succeed in their first year of study.
“One of the big reasons behind Community Connections is to help students foster and build a sense of belonging on campus prior to arriving in September,” she said. “And we recognize, during COVID, there have been fewer opportunities to attend open houses and connect to the physical space.”
Programming, delivered in one- or two-day sessions, focuses on identifying personal strengths, designing an ideal Western experience and discovering potential leadership and mentorship opportunities. Participants were also able to complete their mandatory gender-based and sexual violence training in person. The two-day option included a free overnight stay in residence, a formal campus tour and a faculty panel discussion.
Along with “just letting loose and having fun,” and playing games like laser tag with new peers, the strengths session stood out for Li. “It showed me your major doesn’t necessarily have to corelate to your job outcome,” he said.
Reflecting on their own unique strengths helps students see the bigger picture, Gloor Duncan said.
“We want them to see how their strengths make them a powerhouse, and how these individual superpowers will help them thrive at Western and throughout their lives,” she said.
Leading by example
Key to the successful delivery of Community Connections are student leaders, such as Sharon Sun. A fourth-year student pursuing an honours specialization in kinesiology and a minor in classical studies, Sun understands the uncertainty incoming undergraduates may feel.
“Coming to university can be quite daunting at first,” Sun said. “Student leaders help alleviate a lot of that pressure and stress. You can feel the new students becoming less worried, more open and more carefree through the icebreakers and discussions and see them settle into a comfortable vibe.
“It’s also nice student leaders come from different disciplines with very diverse backgrounds. We can show them they aren’t locked into one area.”
Thriving Foundations is now designed so that students helping on the front line with summer academic orientation may also help with Community Connections and be an academic success mentor in the fall.
It’s part of what Gloor Duncan sees as “a continuum of care,” potentially bringing student leaders and the incoming cohort together from early June into late August.
Connecting with upper-year students had a powerful impact on Li.
“The student leaders were so helpful,” he said. “They facilitated conversations and got everyone having a great time. That made me like the school even more.”
It also brought him back for another session.
“Even though my questions were all answered the first time, I wanted to be a bigger part of this community and meet more people.”
When the Oakville, Ont. native returned, he brought his parents, who stayed in another residence and received their own programming specifically tailored for family members looking to support their student’s move to Western.
“After the second visit, I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be a student leader when I come to Western,’” Li said. “I want to be there for other people like they were for me.
“Everyone, from the student leaders to the organizers, is there to support you along the way. They help you scope out what you want throughout your university experience, and your life, and set goals. It was very motivating and a great precursor to what I’m expecting in September.”
Indigenous student orientation
The Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) offers an Indigenous student transition program, which provides academic, cultural and personal supports to undergraduates.
During orientation day on Friday, Sept. 2., first-year students will meet ISC staff and student leaders and learn about resources and services offered on campus. There will also be a campus tour, lunch and bowling off-campus. The ISC also offers an Indigenous student transition program, which provides academic, cultural and personal supports to undergraduates.
For more information and/or to register, contact Paul Porter, Indigenous student recruitment coordinator, 519-661-4095, ext. 8442.