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'The desire to connect is the epitome of student life'

Access to peer mentoring keeps students connected in a virtual world
By: Emily Graham
November 13, 2020
Man and woman playing together and competing in video games on smartphones

Online engagement in programming and events has increased as students look to build communities and make connections with their peers. Photo credit: Unsplash.

For many students, the postsecondary education experience means more than excelling in academics. Making friends, finding a community and ultimately feeling a sense of belonging is at the core of student life. As an institution that prides itself on the well-rounded experience it offers, many departments at Ryerson have made strides to ensure that students are connected and supported in all areas while they are off campus.  

Building community across borders

For students who are new to Ryerson, connecting with like-minded peers in a virtual capacity has been key to developing and engaging with their community. For example, the Real Institute, whose ESL Foundation Program provides a starting point for students to achieve academic and personal success, has found that its cohort model and peer-support staff have made a huge impact on the student experience.

Known primarily as a high-touch, intensive, in-person program, the Real Institute had to adapt to the virtual environment at the start of the pandemic quickly, with some students choosing to stay in Canada and others going home to their families.

“Engagement can be a challenge – not only when students scattered across the GTA and Canada, but when they’re on the other side of the world,” says David Begg, interim director of the Real Institute. “For language learners, an interactive environment can be intimidating. They may need more coaching and encouragement to get out of their shell.”

To combat this lack of in-person engagement, the Real Institute offered a variety of online, interactive events to students, as well as transition workshops, to help them advance their academic skills and learn more about the Ryerson community. Students in each cohort have established their own WeChat groups where they interact with one another frequently and are, in turn, creating their own communities outside of the virtual classroom.  

In addition to classes, students have the opportunity to connect with Real Institute International peer supporters and staff members who are often former students of the Real Institute. The lived experience of the peer supporters has provided what Begg calls a security blanket for those who would otherwise be withdrawn or shy.

“This virtual interaction with peer supporters who have stood in their shoes and navigated the waters of Ryerson has shown that there’s comfort and safety in talking to someone over a screen,” says Begg. “We’re seeing that most students are just as engaged virtually as they were in the classroom. They’re genuinely excited and happy to be there and talk to someone.”  

The Real Institute also created a student transition coordinator position over the summer to connect students to Ryerson resources and to their intended undergraduate programs early. This position helps students understand what comes next academically and engage with their target program from a social perspective. It also helps them familiarize themselves with the program area, the support available to them and the university’s culture.  

Virtual mentoring more popular than ever

Helping students find a sense of belonging at Ryerson is also an educational priority of Student AffairsTri-Mentoring Program (TMP). Like the Real Institute, TMP’s peer, career and group mentoring opportunities were moved online in March. Despite students no longer connecting in person, TMP has found that its mentoring community meetings for equity-seeking groups on campus have been amplified by their virtual format.  

TMP offers 10 group mentoring programs specifically for equity-deserving groups, such as Black Identified, Filipinx, Indigenous and Mature students. Throughout July and August, first-year students who identified with one or more of the 10 deserving groups had the opportunity to meet before classes started, which fed into TMP’s fall programming.

Though these groups target first-year students primarily, they are open to any student looking for a community to engage with virtually. More than 692 students have been involved in the equity-seeking group meetings so far this academic year and TMP’s numbers to date in all formal mentoring programs have surpassed what they were in March 2020.  

“These groups allow members to be themselves and a lot of our programming is underpinned with the goal to facilitate community,” says Jen Barcelona, manager of the Tri-Mentoring Program. “There is a longing to be connected that is not only evident in our uptake numbers, but in the people who come to our events and programs in a virtual capacity. We are building communities.”  

In addition to virtual mentoring over Google Meet and Zoom, TMP uses a platform called PeopleGrove, external link. PeopleGrove helps provide access to mentoring through group discussion boards and tools for engagement. Ryerson is the first Canadian school to use PeopleGrove and the platform has been a huge success so far.

“The great thing about TMP and the equity-seeking group meetings is that they have an intentional approach,” says Jen Gonzales, executive director, Student Affairs. “We, along with the students themselves, take the student cycle into consideration and think about what they’re facing throughout the year – academics, social media, dating – anything that is important to them. PeopleGrove makes it really easy for us to facilitate this virtually.”  

Above all, providing access to these types of mentoring groups, as well as ensuring students from a variety of backgrounds can find their community and feel a sense of belonging, is extremely important – not just during the pandemic, but in a pre- and post-pandemic world too. As Gonzales notes, learning from students and their experiences will only help TMP and Student Affairs provide more opportunities for connection moving forward.  

“We thrive in a culture of continuous improvement, where we strive for excellence and support the building of strong communities,” Gonzales says. “The desire to connect is the epitome of student life. We’re going to continue to evolve, to do the work to meet the current atmosphere and environment, and to meet the needs of students.”
 

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