Volunteers are the backbone of York University’s quarantine plan: Join us!

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With Canada opening its borders to international students Oct. 20, York University anticipates an influx of returning and first-year students to arrive at Pearson International Airport, ready for two weeks of hotel quarantine, prior to coming to campus. York is supporting these students, not only by covering the cost of their quarantine housing and meals (see YFile Oct. 7, 2020), but by checking in with each of them daily to ask about their health and to ensure that they are settling into their new lives.

These check-ins, which provide the students with a York contact and the sense that the University is concerned about their welfare, are done by a corps of volunteers, both staff and students, called QRs or Quarantine Representatives. This group of unsung volunteers are vital participants in making incoming students feel welcome and ensuring that they are safe and healthy.

“QRs are essential participants in York’s commitment to making students feel welcome to the University during the pandemic,” said Rhonda L. Lenton, president and vice-chancellor of York University. “They help smooth the transition from home to campus and ensure that their lives run as smoothly as possible during quarantine. Their willingness to give their time to this important role is another example of how the York community has come together to support our students during the pandemic.”

Helen Lee, RN, is the director, strategy planning & projects for the Office of the University Registrar and a member of York’s quarantine planning team.

“The Quarantine Representatives have been monumental in the institutional Quarantine Plan,” Lee said. “They have provided holistic care and support to all of our international community that have travelled to Canada during a pandemic. Their sense of commitment to support our student community is admirable and is reflected in their sustained dedication to daily outreach outside of their regular work schedule. I cannot overstate their care and passion observed.”

Lara Ubaldi, York’s director of student advising and academic services, immediately raised her hand when York International issued a call for QR volunteers late last summer, and is delighted that she did.

“It was such a great experience,” Ubaldi said. “It took just a few minutes each day to talk to these fabulous students who comprise our York community, and just talking and getting to know them was wonderful.”

“Since my current position at York is mostly behind the scenes, I don’t talk to students in an in-depth way, but here, I had the chance to work with them directly. It was just fabulous.”

To become a QR, Ubaldi took part in a morning of training run by York International that covered topics such as immigration laws, moving to campus, COVID-19 regulations and symptoms of the virus so that volunteers could offer students guidance and referrals if the newcomers were having concerns about immigration and campus life or feeling unwell.

During the month of September, Ubaldi was assigned to monitor eight or nine incoming students who arrived at various times as border restrictions permitted. She was required to check in with them daily and run through a protocol of questions, checking on their temperature and potential COVID-19 symptoms. After that, it was up to her to engage the students in conversation.

“The standard interaction took about two minutes, but then we would talk about all kinds of things: families, passions and studies,” Ubaldi said. “We shared photos and looked things up together. It was such fun.

“I hope it was valuable to them. We had great conversations about food, cooking and life experiences. They have made a huge commitment to come to Canada a quarantine alone for two weeks. They show real resilience, and the way we’ve all been able to keep going and keep everyone safe is really reaffirming for me.”

Whenever a student had a question Ubaldi couldn’t answer, she contacted her the York International colleagues overseeing the quarantine program and had an answer within two minutes.

“They were on top of things and provided a quick response,” she said.

If a quarantining student exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, the QRs knew they could turn to the Office of Student Community Relations (OSCR), within Community Support & Services (CSS) for assistance. CSS supports students coping with critical incidents, such as severe illness or injury.

“Our first priority is the health and well being of our students as well as that of the broader York community,” said Carolyn Cannon, critical incident case manager, for CSS. “We will connect with the student and support them around their health and well being while ensuring that we are following direction from Public Health experts. Students may feel overwhelmed and we will guide them and will facilitate the connection to on and off campus resources to support their well-being during this difficult time. Every student is supported case by case based on what their needs are.

“CSS works very closely with York International and other partners on campus to support our students,” Cannon added. “When a student is struggling, we support them with connections to on and off campus resources around their physical and mental health, financial issues, housing, student visa issues and other supports. We help them to realize that they are not alone here and that there are many supports available to enable them to be successful in their studies. We have a very in-depth case management support system.”

Once the quarantine is over, York International, Housing & Conference Services and the Division of Students ensure that students have a smooth transition to housing, whether on campus or off campus.

Nonetheless, Ubaldi says she doesn’t consider this the end of her involvement with the students she got to know.

“I am hoping to have the chance, eventually to meet them in person,” she said. “They are a reminder of why we do our jobs and it’s impossible not to derive energy from these interactions.

“I am grateful and proud to have been part of the first group of QRs.”

York International is recruiting new QRs to work with students who will be arriving now that travel restrictions have eased, as well as for those coming to campus for the winter semester. If you are interested in volunteering, complete the form, which is available at: https://yorkinternational.apps01.yorku.ca/machform/view.php?id=434498.

Contact Vinitha Gengatharan, executive director of York International, vinithag@yorku.ca to volunteer.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus