BY REBECCA KENDALL
Ask Barry Townshend how his own experience at university prepared him for his current role as U of G's entering student transition specialist and co-ordinator of the Centre for New Students in Student Life and Counselling Services, and he likens himself to an accident-prone rock climber who has been struck by lightning, chased by bears and fallen from high distances, but has lived to tell the tale, broken bones and all.
“When I was an undergrad, especially the first two years, I learned about life the hard way,” says Townshend, who began working at U of G part time in 1997 while earning a degree in psychology.
“I didn't do well academically, I didn't feel like I fit in anywhere, I didn't feel like I belonged. I experienced the same kinds of pains, although they weren't physical — they were invisible — and although I don't regret any of them, I hope others can learn from the hard way I experienced university without going through it first-hand.”
Townshend's job titles have varied over the years and have included residence program co-ordinator, residence manager and co-ordinator of summer orientation in Student Life. In 2003, he left to do post-graduate work at the University of Toronto, then returned in 2004 to take on his current position.
Adjusting to a new city, making a new set of friends and accepting new levels of responsibility and independence are fairly standard challenges facing university students entering their first year of studies, says Townshend. Most are living away from home for the first time and are having lots of new experiences. They have a whole range of questions and concerns, and his job is to help them navigate their way safely and at their own pace.
His involvement with first-year students begins months before they even set foot on campus through an initiative that began in 2002 called START Online. This web-based version of the on-campus orientation program U of G used to run each summer offers forums, chat groups and videos of the Guelph campus to help incoming students prepare for their arrival. This program is paired with START International, which provides a one-day orientation program for new international and exchange students just prior to Orientation Week.
“The whole idea is to give new students an idea of what university is like and to answer their questions, so it's not quite so overwhelming when they get here,” says Townshend.
Sixty upper-year students volunteered with the program this summer, and more than 900 first-year students participated. “It's a very active program,” he says.
Each week offers a new theme, such as course selection, studying, co-curricular involvement opportunities and living in residence or off campus, all of which are designed to encourage continued participation over the 10-week duration of the program. He says students tell him the topics are timely and often address issues they hadn't even considered.
With many people now using the Internet for much of their communication and information, online resources like these are being heavily used, says Townshend. Because of this and the noticeable drop in activity once students make their way here in September, his office introduced a service through MSN Messenger that uses five student peer helpers to answer questions immediately throughout the year.
“New students don't always know what's out there in terms of support and resources, so this is a way of helping them get connected,” he says.
Questions range from how to pay bills to what to do if you're failing a course or not getting along with your roommate.
As the school year progresses, there are fewer questions from students but more from their parents, says Townshend.
“It's not uncommon for parents to be mystified by the University. It's a big institution that can seem monolithic to someone not familiar with how we operate. Added to that, many parents are surprised and sometimes even upset when they notice dramatic changes in their children's behaviour or how they think about the world. Part of my job is to help parents recognize some of the normal features of students' experiences.”
To help parents understand how the campus operates and how to adjust to the changes they're also experiencing, Townshend maintains a website at www.parents.uoguelph.ca that includes discussion forums, travel info, an e-newsletter, virtual greetings and information on dealing with problems and finding help.
Another area of emphasis in his work revolves around first-year students living off campus.
“We've been running a pilot project this year that involves calling these students on the phone a couple of times each semester to offer them information and support in much the same way Residence Life staff help those living on campus. It might sound simple, but meeting the needs of off-campus first-year students has been a real challenge in the past.”
Students living off campus in first year frequently report that they feel disconnected from the campus community. Off-Campus Connection helps fill that gap.
Townshend says the first year of university is extremely important for students and their families alike because it can sometimes determine how long a student chooses to remain in school.
“The first year and, in many cases, the first couple of months are the most critical in a student's adjustment to university,” he says. “If someone's going to drop out, it'll most likely be in that first year or the summer before second year.
“If we're committed to helping students have a socially and academically positive experience, we need to work hard at understanding their experiences and must be able to adapt to their changing needs to give them the tools they require to be successful later in life. If students feel that what they're doing is of value, reasonably challenging and enjoyable, they'll tend to stay. A big part of my job involves helping them make those connections.”
University of Guelph | Guelph, Ontario, Canada
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University of Guelph