Sara Ahmed

New online transition program connects incoming UTM students, answers questions about university life

Monday, June 15, 2020 - 2:58pm
Blake Eligh

Sara Ahmed remembers heading to campus her first year at U of T Mississauga. She says it was a “new world” where she didn’t know anyone, let alone understand the processes and procedures related to university life.

“There are so many misconceptions about coming to university,” she says.

Stepping on campus for the first time can often be a blend of excitement, confusion and fear. With that in mind, Ahmed has been working on a new initiative out of the Centre for Student Engagement that will help make the transition to university easier for incoming students.

This week the centre is launching Eagle Connect, a new, 13-week online program that provides students with on-demand information and helps them make personal connections with fellow students before classes even start.

Eagle Connect was born from a desire to create a comprehensive transition process for incoming students, says Trent Barwick, student success coordinator of orientation and transition programs with the Centre for Student Engagement. The pre-arrival program offers a one-stop-shop with all the information students need or may want before classes start.

Unlike most virtual programs, Eagle Connect is not in response to the pandemic. Work on the initiative was well underway before physical distancing became the norm.

“We got really lucky that we were working on an online transition platform already,” Barwick says, noting students aren’t typically on campus during the summer so having an online program was a way to reach them. “When the pandemic struck, we realized there’s a lot of value in this.”

Incoming students will be divided into 40 Eagle Squads, with 16 student leaders managing two to three squads. Each week will feature a themed module, with information shared with students through Quercus, the online learning platform with which they will need to become acquainted. Topics will include course selection, applying for residence, clubs they can join on campus and other need-to-know information. A discussion board will give students a chance to ask questions and get to know one another.

The goal of Eagle Connect is to give students the tools to feel confident, ready and excited to start their time at UTM, says Barwick. It’s also a way for them to feel connected to the UTM community before they begin classes.

Barwick stresses the importance of this being a student-led program.

“The value of a student leader is that they can speak to their experience as a student,” he says, noting they can also answer non-official questions like the best place to grab food on campus or what to do between classes.

It can also be less daunting to ask a fellow student, like Ahmed, a question.

“I really wish I had a program like this as a student,” says Ahmed, who graduated earlier this month with a major in biology and a double minor in math and educational studies. She’ll be heading to U of T’s OISE in the fall for a master’s degree in teaching.

When developing the content for Eagle Connect, Ahmed kept in mind what she would have wanted to know when she first started. Besides sharing vital information to help ensure success and a smooth transition, squad leaders will guide students through the weekly modules, answer questions, build community within their squads and show everyone that they are not alone.

The recent grad plans to send a welcome video to her squads so students can see there’s an actual person behind the page.

Ahmed says she wants incoming students to know that it’s OK to ask questions, engage with their squad leader, and that no question is silly. Squad leaders were once incoming students themselves, so they understand what it’s like to be new not only to campus, but university life. Her plan is to provide a program that has a positive, lasting impact.

“Hopefully, (students will) use the page throughout their undergrad experience,” Ahmed says.