High-achieving first-year students at the University of Toronto Mississauga have a unique opportunity to participate in the utmONE Scholars Seminars. This program offers a wide range of for-credit seminar courses that emphasize interdisciplinary and experiential ways of learning. These courses also prepare students for graduate studies starting in the first year of their undergraduate academic careers, and help them build long-lasting connections with their departments and peers. Entry into this program is application-based, and students starting their studies in the fall can apply to the utmONE Scholars for the 2021-2022 academic year by June 20.
However, it is not just the focus on academics that makes the Scholars Program special. Rather, it is the sense of support and collaboration that keeps the spirit of this community alive even after the seminars are done. For instance, the Scholars Collective Committee created by Rebecca Shaw, an Academic Success Strategist, is a professional team of present and past utmONE Scholars who not only design and host events for the Scholars Community, but also publish a monthly newsletter and manage the Scholars Collective Blog. This academic year, the blog’s theme is “community, connection, and collaboration,” which are essential topics to discuss during this time of uncertainty and stress.
When asked what motivated her to organize the Scholars Collective Committee, Shaw replied that students in their first year tend to feel isolated and that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the need for a strong, supportive community. “Moreover,” she continued, “I wanted to engage the past utmONE Scholars because the students themselves knew best how to help their peers—and they are savvier with the online environment.” Shaw admitted that she expected only a few people to be interested, but now the Committee has 12 inspiring members. One of the student volunteers, Leigh-Ann Grant, a second-year Committee Representative pursuing a double major in psychology and biology for health sciences, explained that she decided to become a member of the Scholars Collective because it “provided a safe space to hone her academic skills and learn more about U of T.”
Despite its small size—only about 150 students are invited to each event—the Scholars Collective contributes to the entire UTM community because it maintains an intellectually stimulating and supportive environment on campus and online. Shaw noted, “When we think that the straight-A students will be successful no matter what, we are assuming too much. These students are less likely to reach out for help because they are expected to be doing well—but this is not always the case, especially with the ongoing stress of the pandemic.” Dalal Mahir, a second-year Committee Representative, pursuing a psychology major with a double minor in biology and anthropology, further explains the mission by saying: “We host various events that provide high-achievers with the opportunity to explore their personal and academic goals. One of our main initiatives is supporting the scholars in their transition from high school to university and getting them involved in undergraduate research.”
The first-year experience initiatives, such as the utmONE Seminars, are significant for university students as they are offered tools to ease their transition into the new environment. Shaw explained that the utmONE Seminars help new students “develop a distinct identity by exposing them to different perspectives and ideas.” She also pointed out that it is stressful “to be away from your support network,” yet, at the same time, going to university can be “an escape” from complicated living conditions. In both cases, the utmONE program acts as a guide for students, eventually becoming their “newly found family.”
To Shaw and the committee members, the Scholars Community holds a special place in their hearts. “The students themselves started to build that family feel,” she continued. She also described the committee’s work as an “inspiring collaboration without a single discord.” There is one key to this excellent work: the focus on the common goal. “Every event and newsletter we publish is energizing,” Shaw added, smiling, “and I feel like a part of the family too—I don’t feel like a staff member.”
“The Scholars Community is a place of belonging,” confirmed Kaitlyn Harris, a second-year Committee Representative pursuing an English major with a double minor in French and education studies. “Building personal connections is exceptionally difficult in a virtual setting, but being a part of the Scholars Collective has helped me to meet wonderful people,” said Harris.
The committee organized various engaging events each month this academic year. Shaw and her team admitted that, although it was hard to choose, they definitely had a favourite event: Re-framing Failure. During this meeting, present and past scholars, as well as staff experts, shared their insights about dealing with failure. “At one point, the conversation got vulnerable,” Shaw recalled. “The students discussed imposter syndrome and constant fear of failure. By talking about anxiety openly, we are sending a hopeful message. This is a year of change and learning. We can grow, if we try to connect with each other in these most vulnerable moments.”
Regarding the utmONE seminars, there is one for every scholar’s taste. “It does not matter which seminar courses students take—they bring people from all academic backgrounds together,” Shaw assured. She provided an example of the newest utmONE courses, UTM190: Embodiment in Writing—Writing in Place, which combines Humanities and Social Sciences. UTM192: Thinking Badly: Misinformation in the Information Age also offers a blend of humanistic and scientific approaches. Shaw added that UTM197: Humans in Nature “receives 90% of positive feedback,” and students often tell her that was “one of the best courses” they have ever taken. On the benefits of the seminar environment, Shaw said she wished one of these courses were a part of her undergraduate experience. “I was shy and rarely spoke up in class,” said Shaw. The utmONE seminar courses provide students with knowledge and confidence, making them motivated and outspoken.
After taking UTM193: Nations Colliding, Aline Uchôa Boghossian, a second-year Committee Representative pursuing a double major in psychology and anthropology, explained how the utmONE seminars significantly improved her university experience. “I have gained the ability to see different perspectives on the same matter, which is a powerful and useful way to address multifaceted and intersectional contexts,” she said.
Although there are some areas for improvement, the students are content with the work done by this newly founded committee. “The work that has been done thus far has been amazing,” noted Avery Lam-Hong, a third-year Committee Representative pursuing a double major in chemistry and biology for health sciences. “I can see the positive impact that the Scholars Collective Committee has been able to cultivate among the current utmONE Scholars.” Lam-Hong also concluded that, despite “the virtualization of most university activities,” the utmONE Program “fostered a space where students can seek out the sense of community and belongingness.” Organizing events online and reaching out to students from various time-zones became a game-changing strategy for the scholars.
The utmONE seminar committee was only meant to fill the need for support and community outreach this academic year, but with so much feedback from the present scholars, it is likely to continue with more formal processes and, potentially, more members. “This is an excellent way to continue the utmONE program throughout university,” said Shaw. There is also a potential expansion plan: a summer reading group to keep the scholars connected during the holidays. More information about this program will be available following the exam period on the Scholars Collective Community website.