New Student Connect

Jacqui Rutherford in UVic sweater
Engage Leaders like Jacqui Rutherford help foster a sense of inclusion, wellness and resilience for new students.

How donations increase the capacity of an innovative program to support new students during the pandemic

Back in March of 2020, international student Nahomi Lopez faced a difficult choice. She could return home to Mexico, putting her educational future in jeopardy. Or she could remain in Victoria to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic alone, despite losing her job and much of her social support network.

Nahomi decided to stay.

The COVID-19 Emergency Support Bursary helped her get through a difficult period of time. Now a second-year student majoring in psychology, Nahomi is positively channeling what she learned and giving back by mentoring new students as an Engage Leader in the New Student Connect program.

New Student Connect

While it’s normal that some new students will feel anxious, disconnected, discouraged or overwhelmed, these feelings intensified in the midst of a pandemic. The university could not run in-person orientation and student support programs due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, UVic’s Office of Student Life developed a new program to foster inclusion, wellness and resilience.

New Student Connect helps new-to-UVic students adjust to university life through a peer-mentoring model. Upper-level students are recruited to be mentors (known as Engage Leaders) and assigned to a pod of new students. Engage Leaders regularly connect with students in their pod to provide them with support, share information about university life, and safely facilitate connections amongst the group.

Ben Sangster’s biggest worry about starting school this year was that he would feel isolated. He was one of over 3,000 students who enrolled in New Student Connect in August.

What’s nice about this program is that talking to other students helped me feel less alone in my experience. I'm a pretty shy person but everyone in my pod was very nice and made it easier for me to open up and get excited for our meetings." - Ben Sangster
Tristen and Julia
Engage Leader Tristen (left) and pod member Julia (right) both find the program very rewarding.

Donations add capacity to program

Contributions from donors have allowed the program to recruit more leaders (Engage Leaders receive an honorarium), creating smaller pods. Donations have also helped with purchases of online community building tools like group video games, and supplies to enhance the program, like personalized holiday cards.

Naveen Nijjar enjoyed interacting with her pod through game and trivia nights. She also found value in the “Ask me Anything” sessions. “The leaders are always accessible and easy to reach,” she says, “which has helped me personally in a number of ways, whether it’s asking for help in my classes or just simply having someone to talk to.”

Julia Brusco had to stay home in Brazil for her first term at UVic.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to meet new people,” she explains, “But I’m happy to say that the program allowed me to feel part of a community even being so far away. My Engage Leader was absolutely fantastic, the other students were very welcoming, and the activities planned were awesome. I can’t possibly explain how grateful I am for this program.” - Julia Brusco

“We anticipated students would be feeling isolated this year,” says Angi Ross, program manager of new student engagement. “The main goal of this new initiative is to build a sense of community. I’m hearing from both students and leaders that New Student Connect is having a positive impact on their ability to cope with the pressures of this unusual academic year. One student even described it as ‘a breath of hope’.”

Benefits for mentors as well as mentees

Once she began mentoring students, Nahomi realized the program was helping her as well.

I found it really hard to stay motivated during online school and knowing that I was helping others by staying on top of things, kept me going. This pandemic has forced us to stay apart and taking Zoom lectures can definitely make us feel alone. Planning activities for my pod, having monthly check-ins, and all the educational and active engagement programs helped us connect with each other."- Nahomi Lopez
Nahomi Lopez at Ogden Point
In March 2020, Nahomi received an emergency bursary. Now she's paying it forward by mentoring new students. 

Engage Leader Tristen Lozinski echoed those sentiments saying, “Taking part in this program—which introduces friendship and stability into the lives of so many people (when we all need it most)—has simply been endlessly rewarding!”

Fourth-year student and Engage Leader Jacqui Rutherford also found it valuable. “This program has completely saved me from an anti-social and lonely semester!” she says. “It gives me a sense of purpose and excitement each day to know I'll be chatting with other students, and making a difference in their lives.”

Zoom screenshot of several students and their baking
Engage Leader Jacqui and her pod of students baking together via Zoom

Jacqui attended a leaders’ training session on facilitating meaningful group activities. Afterwards she led a baking activity for her pod via video chat. At a time when there are fewer co-op and work opportunities, Engage Leaders are gaining leadership and mentorship experience, as well as a co-curricular record.

The generosity of donors to this program is yet another example of the community stepping up to help students during this pandemic. Donors to the COVID-19 bursary helped Nahomi stay in school, and now, through New Student Connect, they are helping Nahomi pay it forward to set new students up for success.