Glendon’s community-based initiatives improve language skills while breaking isolation

Image shows two people talking over video chat
Featured image for Glendon Innovatus story on building connections in a pandemic Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels
Glendon Campus in the winter
The Glendon Centre of Excellence for French-language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education

To lessen the social isolation caused by the pandemic, faculty and staff at York University’s Glendon Campus have sought ways to build connections among students and the community. Much of this work has been done remotely and Glendon has some notable successes.

Thanks to the efforts of Sabrina Sirois, an experiential education coordinator at Glendon, and Usha Viswanathan, an assistant professor of French with the Language Training Centre for Studies in French, three programs have decreased social isolation and fostered a strong sense of community, while giving students a chance to practice their non-dominant official language (English or French):

  • Project Connections: Glendon pairs students with a member of the Glendon community (faculty, staff, or alumni) for virtual conversations.
  • Projet Connexions: Volet Aîné matches French as a Second Language (FSL) students with francophone seniors for weekly or bi-weekly phone conversations.
  • Salon francophone is an online drop-in space run by and for Glendon students, brings together FSL and francophone students to chat, play games and share their experiences (Viswanathan’s endeavour).

Project Connections: Glendon

A new voluntary program created during the pandemic, Project Connections: Glendon has really taken off. Both FSL and English as a Second Language (ESL) students have jumped at the opportunity to practice their non-dominant language and get to know someone in the Glendon community other than fellow students. Faculty, staff and alumni have also expressed their delight in getting to know students better one-to-one.

For example, Mae Shibasaki, a third-year international studies student, was paired with Stéphanie Marion, assistant professor of psychology at Glendon.

“I decided to participate in the Project Glendon Connections because I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to get used to speaking French in a comfortable manner,” said Shibasaki. “My biggest struggle in learning French is not to be nervous while speaking French, and as an FSL student, I know that building confidence in speaking a non-native language is important for its fluency.

“Weekly conversation with Dr. Marion has been highly beneficial for me … I am now more confident to speak French and I think it has a good influence on my performance in class as well. It has also helped me build my vocabulary.”

Alumna Alison Smith (BA, ’98) has been delighted to support an ESL student with her English skills while getting to know her.

“Talking with Joelle through the Connections Glendon is a privilege,” said Smith.  “I’m so grateful to know her, share our history and cultures, and hear what’s going on through her eyes as a student at Glendon. Even some of my own French came back – I don’t get to practice much in Victoria.”

Projet Connexions: Volet Aîné

Projet Connexions pairs FSL students with francophone seniors at the Centre d’accueil héritage, an institution that runs a seniors’ home in Toronto and a day program in Oshawa. The Centre d’accueil héritage is one of the sites where Glendon students usually do for-credit work placements, but due to the pandemic, such placements were not possible. However, Sirois and Viswanathan wanted to find a way for seniors to remain connected to the Glendon community, so Projet Connexions was born. This contributes to reducing the feelings of isolation of both seniors and students, build an intergenerational understanding, all the while allowing students to practice their French.

“I thought of my grandma who had been so sad throughout quarantine because she couldn’t see her grandchildren as often,” said Anna Noumtinis, a Glendon student who decided to participate, although she was initially anxious about doing so. Not anymore.

“We talk every week, for about an hour and a half, and believe me when I tell you I have no more doubts in my mind about my decision,” said Noumtinis. “It was by far the best decision I’ve ever made. Hearing how happy he gets when we speak on the phone and listening to all his stories and great health advice absolutely melts my heart. As much as our phone exchanges are helping me to improve my French, they are also making me a better person. I feel my soul growing and maturing.”

“Both projects provide an opportunity to bring the community together under the circumstances and to create a sense of belonging,” said Viswanathan. “It’s a chance to bring the community together under these unusual circumstances; we have a lot of first-year students participating.”

Viswanathan says it’s not only an opportunity for students to practice the language, but to learn more about the diversity of la francophonie.

Participation in both programs is voluntary and conversations are taking place based on each participant’s schedule. In some cases, students can earn bonus credit for taking part. Sirois and Viswanathan are in regular contact with participants to provide support and ensure that everything is going smoothly. They have also created guides for all the participants. For example, when communicating with seniors, students may need some guidance about potential intergenerational gaps and challenges with hearing difficulties.

Due to the overwhelming interest in these programs, Sirois and Viswanathan hope to continue them post-pandemic, with the option of online and in-person chats.

Le Salon Francophone

Another of Viswanathan’s efforts, Le Salon Francophone has also migrated online. Le Salon Francophone is usually a drop-in space at Glendon Campus where students of all levels of French can come to practice the language in a fun, safe and relaxed environment. It is also a place to play games, to meet up with friends, and commiserate about life in the times of COVID.

It is staffed by work-study students with diverse backgrounds and experiences who have an appreciation for what it is to learn and progress in a new language. “The salon allows FSL students to develop confidence in French as well as to develop precious intercultural understanding and appreciation,” says Viswanathan. It is open via Zoom during lunch hour, Monday to Friday, and in the afternoon from 2 to 5 p.m., Monday to Thursday.

The salon often holds events, such as panel discussions and debates, centered around various aspects of la francophonie. In September, there was a celebration of Franco-Ontarians, in November, a panel focused on the experiences of francophones with Asian roots and in December, there was a celebration of Francophone Africa.

“It can just be a place to get support or share the challenges of life online,” said Viswanathan. “It’s a good way to make connections that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. People can make friends among the two solitudes; we mix anglophones, allophones and francophones.

“It helps break down stereotypes and allows students to question their prejudices and biases. It’s a validation and celebration for all.”

Whether students wish to practice their English or French, Glendon offers students opportunities to improve their language skills in a way that also builds community.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, Innovatus