Rolling out a first-class welcome

In the fall of 2010, York’s Vice-President Academic & Provost Patrick Monahan announced the establishment of the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) to provide an investment of $2.5 million in support of innovation and change at the University. Applications were invited for funding to support new initiatives advancing York’s strategic priorities. Of the applications received, 39 projects, led by faculty, staff and students, were awarded funding.

Over the course of the next year, YFile will be profiling the projects through videos and stories. Today, the camera’s spotlight is on a special project that helps high-school students adapt to university life.

Keeping first-year students in class and on track towards a degree starts well before they even move Catherine Salole into residence or purchase their textbooks is at the heart of a new project supported by the Academic Innovation Fund.

“We know that students who have a successful transition into university are more likely to have a successful first year,” says Catherine Salole (right), director of Student Community & Leadership Development, and co-chair of the Student Experience Subcommittee of York’s Retention Council. “Research also tells us that a student who has a successful first year is more likely to complete university with a positive experience.”

With that knowledge in hand, Salole and York computer John Amanatides science Professor John Amanatides (left), who is the master of Bethune College and also co-chair of the Student Experience Subcommittee, applied for and received $92,913 in funding from the Academic Innovation Fund for a project titled, “York University Incoming Student Transition Initiatives”.

“The York University Incoming Student Transition Initiatives Project is a culmination of ideas developed by the subcommittee, which met during the fall 2010 and winter 2011 semesters to identify current practices and make recommendations to improve the University’s approach to communicating to and planning activities for incoming students,” explains Salole.

The project provides a framework for coordinating and supporting activities for a diverse range of incoming students. Based on the principle that a student’s transition to life at university begins with the student’s acceptance of an offer of admission, it focuses on enhancing how York engages with first-year students.

“This project is really an example of the AIF in action,” Salole laughs. The duo launched into warp speed, rallying their teams and getting the initiatives up and running in record time in order to connect with the incoming cohort of students.

First up were enhancements to the RED Zone. Created in 2006, the RED Zone serves as a welcome point for all new students – including Canadian high school, international, college, university transfer and mature students – coming to York for the first time. The RED Zone offers new students a one-stop shop to assist them with their smooth transition to life at the University.

Enhancements included staffing the information kiosk in the Vari Hall Rotunda, recasting the RED Zone lounge in a classroom adjacent to the Rotunda, hiring a college orientation chair for each of York’s nine colleges to provide consistent staffing for each area and training RED Zone Student ambassadors to focus on creating an experience and establishing meaningful connections with incoming students rather than inundating them with information.

Forging these connections, some 6,490 in all over the course of the summer, has helped demystify the University for incoming students. “This project helps make this gigantic institution feel a little bit smaller,” says Amanatides. “So many times in this place, I see lots of interesting programs, useful programs, but students don’t know about them,” he says. As part of their experience in the RED Zone, students receive information on all of the services and supports available at the University, which Amanatides says is important “when things get hard”.

Added to the personal RED Zone experience, was a virtual component. Knowing that students often will consume information in the wee hours of the morning, the Initiatives team launched a series of videos and blogs. Subjects covered include a welcoming message, academic success, managing finances, safety, student services and supports and more. An incoming student portal augmented the content delivered by the blogs by providing students with portlets of information and a virtual dashboard to guide them through their orientation and transition from high school to university.

Above: The incoming student portal

The project team also organized a series of talks that were inspired by the popular TED Talks concept. Known as RED Talks, incoming students and their parents were offered a chance to go to an informal talk given by a York faculty member, some of which included a panel discussion featuring current York students. “The RED Talks helped students get used to what a lecture might be like,” says Salole.

And finally, The Text Race, an innovative and engaging play presented by the talented students in Vanier College Productions, premiered to all incoming students as part of the Initiatives project. Written by York residence life coordinator Kawa Ada, the play was shown at 15 academic orientation sessions during Welcome Week at the start of term. It offered a consistent message that was carefully crafted in an engaging way to appeal to students and reinforce their knowledge about all the student services available to help them do well during their time at University.

“Each part of the Initiatives project has been about helping students transition to life at University and to be successful,” says Salole. “The academic innovation fund has allowed units to go and think beyond what’s possible with their resources and to connect with others on campus to do something bigger.”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor