By Shannon Boklaschuk
Although new College of Arts and Science students won’t be able to gather together in person this fall, a new program is aiming to help them connect virtually this summer during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative, called The New to A&S Summer Challenge, is open to all new College of Arts and Science students regardless of their year of study.
The Summer Challenge was launched on June 15 as a fun and engaging way to generate excitement about starting university, while helping students develop the tools they need to build community in an online environment this fall. The University of Saskatchewan (USask) is planning for remote instruction in the fall 2020 term. All USask buildings are currently closed.
The Summer Challenge will help new students gain skills that will ease the transition to university life, said Erin DeLathouwer, manager of student recruiting and strategic partnerships in USask’s College of Arts and Science. They will also become familiar with USask’s Learning Charter and career readiness competencies, and grow a sense of belonging and college identity.
“I hope that participants gain a sense of connection, autonomy, and orientation to the university culture through this challenge,” DeLathouwer said.
“Thus far we have about 60 students signed-up—about the size of a smaller first-year humanities class. It’s a good number of students to work with. We believe that many of these students will emerge as student leaders, prepared to face the fall and help their fellow students make connections, navigate policies and help shape the norms of this new remote world that the university is an important part of,” she added.
“We know how valuable it will be for new students to begin to make connections to each other and to the college even before Fall 2020 Orientation, so we want to be as flexible as possible with sign-ups and challenges so that any new student can join in for part of the Summer Challenge at any time.”
To join the Summer Challenge, new students can email firstname.lastname@example.org with their Network Services ID (NSID). Organizers will use a system called Blackboard to group students together so that they can complete bi-weekly challenges throughout the summer. For each challenge completed, the student group members will receive three points. All students with 18 points by the end of the summer will be entered into a draw for an iPad.
Peer mentors, college alumni and faculty members will be in touch with the participating students throughout the Summer Challenge.
“One upcoming challenge will familiarize students with our Learning Charter and some of the policies of the college and the university,” said DeLathouwer. “Several challenges, which will be built as we learn more about our participants, will focus on building community using online platforms, communicating with peers, alumni and faculty in professional and charitable ways online, and building a sense of college identity, as well as a sense of academic identity.”
Although campus buildings remain closed, DeLathouwer said it’s important the university community continues to show that it values and nurtures respectful and inclusive connections. It’s also important that new USask students are “exposed to opportunities to meet new people and to learn about who they are and who they want to become in life within that really open, safe space that is the university,” she said.
“We know that students who make friends in their first year of university are more likely to graduate. We know that without the social bonds, the academic discoveries are scarce,” said DeLathouwer.
“For all of these reasons, it is essential that the university continues to serve as an open and safe space for students of all backgrounds to come together to share ideas and critically evaluate the world in which we live. To recreate this world online will be a challenge for us all.”
In typical years, USask hosts many in-person activities to welcome students to campus. DeLathouwer hopes the Summer Challenge can help students make connections in safe ways during the global health crisis and also help them navigate any anxiety or uncertainty they may be feeling.
“We know that the transition from high school to university can be tough in any year, but this year we quickly realized that we all need to be responsive to an even greater threefold challenge that new students are facing: transitioning from high school to university, from in-person to remote learning, and from making social connections via spatial proximity to making those connections despite physical distancing,” she said.
“The New to A&S Summer Challenge was created to begin to address and make explicit this threefold challenge. Our hope is that participants gain confidence in navigating some of the resources, systems, tools and strategies that will assist in their academic, remote, and social transition to USask and to the College of Arts and Science in the fall.”