Universities ramp up student support over 'particularly lonely' holiday season

The University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo are stepping up support for students over the holidays.
The University of Guelph will keep its Student Support Network open over the holiday break. The program for students offers drop-in peer support. (Student Wellness at the University of Guelph/Twitter)

University campuses are typically quiet around the holidays as students head home for the season, or take advantage of the extended winter break. This year, however, campuses are already missing the usual student activity due to the pandemic.

The emptiness and lack of campus connection has been a concern for some schools. Both the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo are offering more support for students over the holidays.

"In this time of the global pandemic, that quietness is particularly lonely for our students who don't have family that they can be with for an extended period of time safely," said Carrie Chassels, vice provost of student affairs at the University of Guelph. "So we really started to think about what can we provide for our students during the holidays to help them feel connected to the university and our griffin family."

The University of Guelph has established programs such as the Student Support Network available over the holidays in addition to a variety of online and over-the-phone mental wellness supports while the university is closed.

Apart from mental health support, Chassels said the university has also focused on providing more holiday activities online and outdoors for students who may not not have the opportunity to engage with their family, friends or community this year due to the pandemic.

The university has created a Facebook group called Winter Break 2020 for students to stay connected through virtual events.

Chassels herself is hosting a virtual Christmas Eve gathering and has more than 80 students already signed up for the event. She said it will include storytelling and cookie decorating.

"For the students who are local to the area, our wonderful hospitality services has prepared little kits of cookies ... and a packet of cocoa," said Chassels.

Chassels said the university is expecting to have about 100 students that will still be on campus over the holidays, many of whom are students who have been living on campus through the fall semesters. Others will be newly arriving international students.

Quarantine supports for arriving international students 

Both the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo are phasing in the return of international students for the upcoming semester.

The University of Waterloo has had new international students arriving to Canada since November and are expecting more over the holidays.

"We put together quite a bit of support for these students right from the planning stage before they travel, throughout their quarantine period and then as well to help them transition into the local community," explained Pam Charbonneau, director of the student success office at the University of Waterloo.

Charbonneau said a quarantine support group has been created for new students arriving in the country, in addition to support packages which help students arrange for accommodations while in quarantine.

"They're finding it challenging to adapt to some degree. But I think, you know, our students are pretty resilient and have really taken advantage of the resources that have been made available to them to support their online studies, as well as community engagement and community development," said Charbonneau.