First-Year Students’ Office – One Year In
The Fall 2019 semester will mark the first anniversary of the official opening of Dawson’s First-Year Students’ Office (FYSO), a support and triage centre for student issues that can be resolved through services available at the College. Created to ease the transition to college, the office came into being to address Goal 2 of the Strategic Plan: support new students in their transition to Dawson. Our first contact with students is made during Welcome Week when we address incoming students with a presentation about our services. We assure them that we are a welcoming, judgement-free space where any question can be asked. We underscore that while there are hundreds of employees dedicated to their success, they can lean on the people at one location to help them identify which person or service can help them resolve any college situation they may face. While the emphasis is on first-year students, no student will be turned away.
While Dawson has a multitude of support services in place, accessing them is not always uppermost in students’ minds, especially when they are experiencing a crisis, whether academic, emotional, financial or otherwise. Students in various states of vulnerability frequently reach out to Dawson teachers, who are equipped to deal with academic issues, or in a good position to refer them to the appropriate service. Solutions are less obvious, however, when students are in need of multiple services. The First-Year Students’ Office solves this problem by being a one-stop shop for all Dawson services. When students leave 2D.0, we make sure they have an action plan to deal with whatever problem they came in with, big or small.
When Dawson greets its new students each year during Welcome Week, we warn them of the potential pitfalls of college life while assuring them that the support network we have in place can help them navigate their relatively short stay here. We tell them about helpful teachers, accessible services and first-rate facilities. We also remind them that, as young adults, they will be required to take responsibility for their success and that accessing the support they have available will require initiative on their part. This can be quite daunting to a first-year student, taking into account the size of our institution and the multiple sources of information (teachers, staff, parents, friends, advisors, Omnivox, Moodle, etc.). Prior to their college experience, many students have never been in a position that required so many processes to be followed, deadlines to be met, or complex schedules to be managed. FYSO supports students in making their transition to college by simplifying access to resources and services. When it is done well, this process helps students build their autonomy.
FYSO supports students in making their transition to college by simplifying access to resources and services. When it is done well, this process helps students build their autonomy.
The FYSO is a two-member team service consisting of Geoff Kloos and Valentina Solkin, both trained in mental health first-aid. As a social worker (and Dawson graduate), Valentina has an extensive background in youth work, focusing primarily on issues related to gender, sexuality, healthy relationships, racial discrimination and social justice. The office is staffed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and both Day Division and Continuing Education students are welcome.
We offer students a place to be heard, regardless of whether they require a referral. If a student leaves a class while having a panic attack, they often come straight to the FYSO to regain their composure. If someone experiences an act of bullying on campus, they approach us for guidance related to the reporting process. When a student needs to speak to a teacher but is hesitant or unsure of themselves, we offer the encouragement and support necessary to help them take the next step. In other words, we can help de-escalate situations that are perceived by students as complete roadblocks. We help them to understand that these roadblocks are in fact just manageable obstacles. Our training also allows us to assess whether an issue requires a supportive listener or urgent care from the Counselling team.
No appointments necessary
Students entering the FYSO often start their visit by stating, “This is probably a stupid question but…” to which we quickly reply that ANY question is welcome. Many questions are related to academic advising and can be answered on the spot if the inquiry is straightforward. If not, it’s a short walk down the hall to the Academic Advising office for clarification. In other cases, the visit to our space is a precursor to seeking psychological support in Counselling Services. While many students go directly to that service for help, others approach us first with their anxiety or depression concerns, thinking that their issues don’t quite qualify for psychological support. More often than not, they are dealing with mental health issues that cannot be resolved without professional help.
Similarly, health and wellness issues bring many students to the FYSO. Students don’t always realize that the Health Services’ two nurses, general practitioner, gynecologist and psychiatrist are available for drop-in and/or appointments. These services are well advertised, and yet in the whirlwind that is a first semester at Dawson, mental and physical well-being are sometimes not prioritized by students until the problems can no longer be ignored. Once they share their concerns with us, we can assure them that their problems are indeed appropriate for the services available to them and connect them to the right resource.
The student services that the FYSO refers to on a regular basis include:
- Counselling Services for psychological support;
- Academic Advising for advice on how to successfully meet graduation profile requirements;
- the Academic Skills Centre for help to improve reading, writing and learning skills as well as free tutoring;
- the AccessAbility Centre for any student support related to learning issues and documented disabilities;
- the Financial Aid Office with its loan and bursary programs and food bank/free snack bar;
- Campus Life and Leadership with its cultural animation and recreation programs;
- the Ombuds Office that helps mediate issues between students and staff/faculty;
- the Career Resource Centre for help with university and career path questions; and
- the First Peoples Centre that offers a community space for Dawson’s Indigenous students and promotes Indigenous studies at Dawson.
We also collaborate with the Hive, the Dawson Student Union’s gender advocacy centre, regarding issues related to gender identity and sexual health.
With all the choices available, the FYSO works to ensure that our students feel supported, rather than overwhelmed, by the extensive selection of resources.
A safe space
Beyond being a referral service, the FYSO also offers a number of perks to help ease students into what can otherwise be a fairly isolating experience. Entering a college of thousands at rush hour can bring pangs of anxiety to any of us. Trying to initiate friendships in such a large institution can be daunting and lead to loneliness — a sentiment shared by many students when we ask them about the challenges of their first semester. When students feel as though they have nowhere to go, they sometimes land in the FYSO lounge where they meet other students in similar situations. These include students whose friends have registered at other colleges, international students who are new to Montreal or students with social anxiety issues that prevent them from gravitating toward larger student spaces. Whatever the case may be, these students find community in our space and eventually move on to the club spaces or elsewhere, once they feel more confident in their ability to fit in.
What makes the FYSO special?
- A centrally-located office at the intersection of the 2C, 2D and 2E wings that’s easy to find.
- No appointments necessary. We always work on a drop-in basis. This is impossible for many services but works well for us and, as such, students are not required to work around our schedule.
- We have a friendly, quiet lounge that welcomes students who feel out-of-place in some of the larger student spaces. The lounge features a comfortable seating area and a plant wall developed in collaboration with Sustainable Dawson, and is complete with relaxation aids and stress-reduction activities.
- Our external signage assures students that we are a safe zone for however they express their gender or sexual orientation.
- The office houses a computer centre where students can access their student information or work on assignments.
- Our in-house social worker is initiating an internship program in which students from the Social Service program will facilitate a peer support network for students looking to meet friends so they can connect in a safe, fun way.
How do students find out about us?
In addition to Welcome Week presentations, teacher referrals to the FYSO are also very successful. If you have students who have issues you suspect could be resolved by a Dawson service, we encourage you to send them our way. If you are a newer teacher and not completely familiar with the services available to your students, you can confidently send them to us for any reason and we will help them figure out the next steps.
We also offer classroom visits by invitation for short ten-minute presentations early in each semester. We find that establishing a face-to-face connection helps students feel comfortable approaching us with personal problems that they would otherwise keep to themselves. We often receive student visits to the FYSO right after a class finishes following our sessions. To that end, we are counting on you to spread the word about the First-Year Students’ Office. Tell your students about us. Tell your colleagues about us. Invite us to your classroom. Drop by our office and have a coffee with us!
The First-Year Students’ Office is located in 2D.0 and is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.