By Brandon Gillet
Transitioning to university, especially when you’re away from home, can be hard. That’s why uOttawa created a program six years ago — the first of its kind — to help students arriving from outside Ottawa find their feet in a new city.
At the Regional Mentoring Centre, students can turn to upper-year students from their own part of the country who lend an ear and a helping hand. The International Office has a similar initiative geared to mentoring students from other countries (except for those who finished high school in Ontario, who see the regional mentors).
In addition to helping individual students, mentors organize social activities and manage Facebook pages for students from their region. As they put it on their webpage: “Why speak to us? You'd like to take part in an activity, but don't want to go alone. You miss your family, your hometown, your dog.”
Nadae Oukrid has experienced the regional mentoring program from both sides. The third-year communications student, who is head regional mentor this year, was introduced to the program in first year when she was part of the cohort arriving from Secondary V (Quebec).
“My mentor would invite me to activities she organized for all the students coming from Secondary V and regularly check up on me to see how things were going,” she said. “Recently a student told me my advice was crucial to helping him feel less alone in first year because I had lived exactly what he is going through.”
A “GPS” for new students
Catherine Lavoie, who works at uOttawa as student experience coordinator, says the regional mentors program acts as “a sort of GPS for first-year students,” both providing support and guiding newcomers to the many other resources and services across the large campus.
“The main purpose is to help first-year students transition well to university life,” she said. “When you’re homesick, it can feel like everyone around you has it all figured out. But we want all new students to integrate well on campus and make the most of their university experience.”
Valérie Deveaux began working as a mentor for students from the Maritimes last January, replacing her own mentor who had gone abroad for a work opportunity. The second-year French literature and theatre student says the students she helps face a few challenges beyond the distance from home.
“It’s a different lifestyle in the Maritimes,” she said. “And for Acadians, the French spoken here can take a bit of getting used to.”
The regional mentoring program began with the goal of helping francophones from remote communities adjust to life at uOttawa. From an original five mentors, it has expanded to the current 14, who represent regions across Canada, including British Columbia, Northern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.
The mentors work part-time during the academic year and full-time from May to September through the work-study program. They visit their region twice during the summer to give presentations and meet incoming students and their parents.
While they focus on students’ well-being outside of the classroom, the regional mentors know where to direct students for other support they may need. They work closely with the Student Academic Success Service, the network of academic, mentoring and counselling services and programs available on campus. For example, if students are having a hard time with their courses, regional mentors will refer them to the student mentors within the faculties.
“We’re focused on them making friends and feeling at home at the University,” Lavoie said. “We want them to feel like they belong here, wherever they’re from.”