By Lori Bamber
At Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) in Alberta, one group of visitors gets more attention than any other – along with more hugs and pets. Puppy Days, a GPRC collaboration with the local SPCA, brings canine companions to the campus throughout the year.
Being able to pet and connect with the dogs is fun and relieves stress, says Megan Ryan-Walsh, student recruiter and community relations officer. “We see students running through the halls to catch them.”
Many of the dogs have been adopted as a result of their visits. For the students, some of the proven benefits of pet therapy include the release of calming endorphins along with a reduction in anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation and alienation.
Whether they are entering college right out of high school or are back in class after several years of working, many students have to balance finances and relationships as well as part-time jobs in addition to their study schedule, says Ms. Ryan-Walsh.
To help students succeed in their programs, GPRC has steadily increased services and support, and provides drop-in peer counselling and referrals and a friendship centre, she says.
“Wellness programs include drop-in fitness classes, a weight room and climbing gym, and stress management workshops,” says student health and wellness co-ordinator Joel Thibault, who organizes Puppy Days and other events promoting student wellness. “It is important to help students get out of their heads and focus on self-care for a while.”
The college also provides extensive learning support. Students can drop in throughout the day, and workshops are offered on topics such as study skills, time management, exam anxiety, bibliography and annotation, and how to do a research paper. “If you need a tutor, they’ll help find you one,” says Ms. Ryan-Walsh.
“It is important to help students get out of their heads and focus on self-care for a while.”
Joel Thibault is a student health and wellness co-ordinator
Another example of innovative support initiatives is the 24/7 fast-response “solution hotline” introduced by College Boreal in Northern Ontario. “It’s been well received,” says Renee Hallee, director of teaching and learning support services. “It doesn’t mean that we are always going to solve the problem right away, but the students know we’ve received the message and are ready to act on it.”
One student called to report feeling unsafe when walking to her car at night because some lights were out in the parking lot. “We checked with our infrastructure people right away and found they had someone coming to fix the lights. We followed up with the student to let her know that it would be done within a couple of days, and introduced her to a security guard who would accompany her to her car after late classes. For her, it was a big thing.”
Adjusting to the college environment can be challenging for students who are transferring directly from secondary school, she says. “We are asking them to transition to a system in which they have to take responsibility for their learning experience in terms of managing their time, their part-time job and being away from home.”
Quickly responding to the “little things” encourages students to come to the college’s administration with the “big things,” says Ms. Hallee. “They know we’re listening.”
College Boreal’s First Generation program also provides targeted support for students who are the first members of their families to attend a post-secondary education institution. As a result, 522 of 527 first-gen students successfully completed their program last year, she reports.