Helping First-Year Students to Find Their Footing

Helping First-Year Students to Find Their Footing


Principal Randy Boyagoda is happy to offer credit for St. Mike’s new first-term check-in program where it’s due: with the students themselves.

The program, which offers students the opportunity to be matched up with professors to chat about adjusting to university life, is the result of an idea brought to the Principal’s Office by SMCSU, St. Mike’s student union.

With concerns over student mental health continuing to make headlines across the country, touching everyone from parents and professors to roommates and friends, Professor Boyagoda says he was pleased when a group of students approached him last spring to ask what St. Mike’s was doing to promote mental health.

“A delegation from the Student Life committee met with me and wanted to know what was being done locally,” he recalls. “They asked what St. Mike’s could do to respond. The challenge came from students.”

In ensuing discussions about what causes students worry or distress, one of the issues that came to light was students’ anxiety over meeting with professors, an experience that is pretty much unavoidable over the course of four years of a post-secondary education.

“Students were telling us they felt intimidated. Our goal was the humanize the relationship,“ he says.

A photo of Dr. Felan Parker, Assistant Professor, Book & Media Studies.

Assistant Professor, Book & Media Studies Felan Parker met with new students as part of St. Mike’s first-year check-in program.

Working to overcome that challenge seemed like a good – and feasible – first step, and so the first-year check-in idea took root with the goal of normalizing professor-student meetings.

A quick survey of professors – both at St. Mike’s as well as fellows associated with St. Mike’s – indicated a great willingness to help, and the program was launched to success this past fall. The University of Toronto has taken notice of the program and is considering broader applications, Professor Boyagoda notes.

“This program is not about course advising. It is totally voluntary, and student-centred,” he says.

First-year student Lisa-marie Lofty took advantage of the new program, and says she found the opportunity to chat with Dr. Felan Parker helpful as she adjusted to life at St. Mike’s.

“We met early in the semester as I was still thinking about courses and we had a friendly conversation about things to consider as the year went on,” she recalled.

As someone who had attended boarding school four hours outside of Nairobi and was drawn to U of T in part because of the appeal of a big city, it was nice, once here, to have another friendly face to relate to, especially as Dr. Parker told her a bit about his own experiences as a student.

Mathematics professor and St. Mike’s fellow Dr. Mary Pugh also participated in the program after a student contacted her. She says the main message she conveyed was that the student could contact her at any time.

The program “gives students access to a disinterested/non-judgmental person who’s well-familiar with the Faculty of Arts & Science and its classes and programs; someone who can treat them like a human and offer support/advice if needed,” Dr. Pugh says.

As helpful as the program is proving to be for students, it is also proving to be educational for professors as well.

St. Michael’s wellness counsellor Nicole LeBlanc offers one-on-one wellness counselling to USMC students.

“Because I usually teach upper-year courses, I haven’t had much interaction with first-year students,” says Dr. Parker, who teaches in St. Mike’s Book and Media Studies program. “Contrary to popular myth, I’ve found that they are the opposite of entitled, frequently apologizing for asking for help and uncertain of what kind of support is available. My hope is that the first-year check-ins, along with other initiatives like the first-year foundations seminars, will help show students that we are here to help.”

Social worker Nicole LeBlanc, St. Mike’s in-house wellness counsellor, says first-year students can experience anxiety for a number of reasons. Everything from worry over marks and making friends through to loneliness and being far from home can make students feel anxious or depressed – or both.

“Students face a lot of pressure these days, whether it’s competition to get into graduate programs or wanting to please parents, or worry over expenses. Add in relational issues – the rules of engagement over dating and friendships, for example – and it can be very challenging,” she says. “Many students are going from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a very big pond, no longer having the top marks or profile they might have had in high school. It’s a shock to the system.”

“Be open and honest,” she says when asked what others can do to help. “Tell the person that you notice a change, and let them know that you care. You can suggest counselling or a doctor. Destigmatizing mental illness is very important.”

LeBlanc offers one-on-one counselling for St. Michael’s students, and notes that all it takes is an email or call to set up an initial appointment with her. She finds that a significant part of her role is letting students know what services are available, whether it’s academic help via the writing centre or learning strategist, social support from places like the Centre for International Experience, a referral to the Health and Wellness Centre at the University of Toronto for medical issues, or friendly encouragement to take advantage of on-campus activities offered through St. Mike’s Student Life.


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.