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First Year Experience leaves UM’s newest students confident, prepared

New summer-long programming readied students for university life

September 22, 2020 — 

In home offices across Winnipeg this summer, UM faculty and staff were busy planning a creative solution to an unusual problem: how do we support incoming students when we can’t welcome them in person?

Although COVID-19 has transformed the university experience, students starting their first year at UM this fall are confident and prepared thanks to UM’s First Year Experience: a series of new online initiatives aimed at readying them for university life.

“We recognized that this year’s incoming students were in a unique situation having had their high school graduating year cut short by the pandemic and then waiting months before returning to their studies,” says Brandy Usick, Executive Director, Student Engagement & Success. “It wasn’t a normal transition into university. This was our way of helping them feel a little bit more confident by preparing them for the year ahead.”

Connecting to UM whenever, wherever

Launched in July, UM Commons is the go-to information hub for new students to discover events, connect with staff and services, or join peer tutor programs and student communities. From the start, students were eager to connect. Within its first month UM Commons received 29,667 views – nearly eight times the amount normally received on the university’s orientation pages.

Learning the ropes

What does it mean to join the UM community? Through UM Essentials – an eight-module online course – students learned about our university’s expectations for their academic and personal behaviour as well as how to navigate coursework through UM Learn.

Over 450 students also signed up for Math Bootcamp, an innovative online self-guided study created by the Faculty of Science. The three-week-long summer camp was designed to boost students’ math skills before they entered a university classroom.

“Practice is the key to developing a deeper understanding of mathematics,” says Avleen Kaur, a TA in the program. “Math Bootcamp provided a large variety of study material such as modules, worksheets, quizzes and live tutorials. By solving all of it, the students felt confident about having a strong start.”

Meeting our community

At a time when students would normally be exploring campus and meeting new friends, Prep Week (Aug. 31-Sept. 4) and Welcome Day (Sept. 8) brought the energy of our campus community online.

Nearly 2,000 first-year students logged in to Welcome Day to virtually kick-off the new academic year, while over 1,500 students registered for Prep Week to familiarize themselves with all aspects of university life.

Each day featured a full-schedule of online workshops, lectures and social gatherings, with some sessions seeing upwards of 500 students in attendance. By far the most popular were skill-based workshops, including those on time management (presented by First Year Centre); group work strategies (offered by Student Engagement and Success); and academic writing (led by the Academic Learning Centre together with Libraries, the Academic Integrity Coordinator and writing tutors).

Some professors also prepared special lectures on engaging topics that also doubled as a guide for navigating coursework and the responsibilities of being a student. These included:

  • How friends and family protect us from the biological wear-and-tear of stress” (Dr. Ryan Giuliano);
  • Handling conflict effectively” (Dr. Lukas Neville);
  • The science of sedentary behaviour: How sitting less and moving more can improve health and academic achievement(Dr. Navjot Pachu);
  • Welcome to Treaty One” (Dr. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair); and,
  • Computing Creatively for the good of humanity” (Dr. Celine Latulipe).

Beyond coursework, an integral part of the university experience is interacting with others on campus – a challenging feat in these times of social distancing.

“Part of the appeal of coming to university is expanding yourself and growing and meeting new people,” says Usick. “That’s what makes the first month so exciting, so electric. We had to find a way to help students feel there’s a community of people here for them.”

Some sessions, like “homeroom meetups”, gave new students the opportunity to virtually connect with fellow classmates and upper-level students every day, while others provided space for groups like UMSU and The Womyn’s Centre to explain their purpose and activities.

The online student hub, UM Commons, categorizes the over 200 student communities based on interest, making it even easier for students to connect outside of class.

At a time when social distancing can hinder meaningful connection, UM students, staff and faculty have found ways to overcome the challenge together.

“Every aspect of UM’s First Year Experience initiative has been thoughtfully developed in keeping with our institutional commitment to deliver an outstanding student experience,” says Laurie Schnarr, Vice-Provost (Students). “I am immensely grateful to colleagues from across the University who enthusiastically contributed engaging content to help new students feel welcomed and prepared for the year ahead. This was truly a team effort.”

As the Fall Term progresses, so too will the First Year Experience. Further programming has been planned for the remainder of the academic year to ensure UM’s newest students have the resources they need to thrive and excel.

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