I work and attend a commuter University. It’s in the heart of downtown, and in Winnipeg, downtown is not a thriving social hub. People don’t want to stay downtown after dark, nor do they tend to choose it as a place to socialize. For the most part, the campus community scurries back to their suburban neighbourhoods at the end of the day, and does their studying and socializing in those areas.
The University and City Hall have been working very hard to re-vitalize downtown. Our campus is rapidly spreading, residences are increasing in size and number, and in general, everything in the area is getting a face-lift.
When delivering my Orientation this past week, I very specifically bore in mind a story that one of the recruiters had told me earlier in the year. She told me how one of her international students had confessed that he had no idea where the downtown mall was, as he only ever went to campus and to his residence. This student had no friends, and had even approached her about volunteer opportunities on campus, specifically so he could meet people. The mall in question? Less than a block away up the same street that the University is on. I could have cried when I heard this story. To think that these students are so isolated that they had no idea what was going on around them was just heartbreaking to me.
So this year I focused less on the logistics of registration and health plans and the CV and spent more energy on “campus life.” I invited the Theatre Department to speak about the plays that students could attend for free. I invited the Global Welcome Centre to recruit students as volunteers and mentors. I invited the Athletic Centre to talk about the gym, and the sports teams on campus.
Yes, the Orientation was too long. Yes, there were too many talking heads. And no, I might not do the same thing again next year. But the potential loneliness of the students touched me. It goes back to an earlier post  where I mentioned the importance of students “experiencing” graduate school. If last year’s theme was about getting involved for the sake of their CV, this year’s theme will be getting involved for the sake of their own emotional well-being.
Can I force students to be friendly with each other? Can I force them to get involved with campus activities and politics? Definitely not, nor would I want to even if I had that power. But encourage them? Oh yeah. I don’t want them to just look back at their time with the University of Winnipeg and evaluate the quality of education that they received. I want them to give a happy little sigh and smile about the special time of their life that they had here. A time of networking, a time of experiencing new things, a time of stepping outside their comfort zones, and yes…a time of learning a thing or two. Can’t they do it all?
Deanna England is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus .