Wellness is top of mind for the Faculty of Graduate Studies

wellbeing at work
Harsh Doshi
Harsh Doshi

Harsh Doshi originally signed up for the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ Certificate in Personal Wellness & Learning Skills as a way to meet people and stave off the gloom of winter in Toronto. He was surprised to discover how relevant it was to his life as a master’s degree student in human resources management.

“The stress of a graduate program can be real, although you don’t necessarily realize it,” Doshi said. “It’s only when you compare it to other times in your life that you become aware. We don’t discuss it in our classes, but when you see others who are experiencing the same thing, it makes you feel more normal.”

Alyssa Samuel
Alyssa Samuel

Alyssa Samuel, who is working toward her master’s degree in Canadian common law at Osgoode Hall Law School, has also become a champion of the certificate program. “I’ve always been a big advocate of personal wellness and self care,” said Samuel. “I know how stressful things can get. When I heard about the certificate in a newsletter, I wanted to get my mind back into those strategies, but I got way more than I expected.”

In a year filled with intense courses delivered online, Samuel really looked forward to the wellness sessions as a way to connect with others.

“It gave me a feeling of not being alone and it was wonderful to meet people going through the same struggles as I was,” she said. “It helped us validate ourselves and realize it was okay to feel like this; I am not judging myself as much as a result.”

The Certificate in Personal Wellness & Learning Skills is only one of a variety of wellness services offered by the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), where self-care is a decanal priority.

Thomas Loebel
Thomas Loebel

“The intense research focus of graduate school demands highly challenging, often rapid intellectual development, which can generate various pressures on students’ mental and physical well-being,” said Professor Thomas Loebel, dean of FGS and associate vice-president, graduate.

“In response, FGS has developed a suite of resources, accessible in individualized one-on-one and collaborative group formats, to help students alleviate those pressures. Our goal is hopefully yours, too: we want you to be able to enjoy this period of your self-development fully, to be energized and not enervated by it. Along the way, we seek to gather further recommendations from the community as we strive to develop a culture of care at York University.”

Sarah Irwin-Gardner, a registered psychotherapist, is the manager of graduate student wellness services for FGS and the co-developer of the wellness certificate. “FGS has recognized that mental health and well-being matter and affect academic pursuits,” Irwin-Gardner said. “It’s important and responsible for us to think about the particular needs of the graduate student community and help them thrive.”

Sarah Irwin-Gardner

The Faculty offers students a variety of resources and services designed to meet their needs. Many of them are health promotion- and prevention-oriented, such as the wellness webinars and workshops, and a resource hub that points students toward myriad services and resources, both on and off campus, that can assist with issues as diverse as accessibility and fitness. Students can also apply to a fund to help them create their own wellness initiatives.

“York is a large place, and offers great services,” Irwin-Gardner said. “Many areas contribute to overall student well-being.”

There are also intervention-focused services in the form of wellness consultations and short-term counselling. Irwin-Gardner is excited to be adding a full-time graduate student counsellor to the staff and welcoming a practicum student to help meet demand.

“Our team is growing,” she said.

Now that services are being delivered remotely, the FGS Certificate in Personal Wellness & Learning Skills may have the largest reach.

“When we ran the program in class, it was capped at 20 people to allow for sharing and group cohesion,” said Irwin-Gardner. “Now that we’re online, we have 100 participants. It speaks to the need for building connections during the pandemic, and it also removes scheduling barriers. We’ve had participants from around the world.”

Irwin-Gardner leads the program in partnership with Cathy Boyd-Withers, a learning skills specialist from Learning Skills Services who works with students at all levels to develop the learning skills needed for academic success in any discipline. These skills, such as time management and effective study strategies, help to alleviate academic stress and deadline pressure. The pair attended a 2017 presentation where they heard about a similar program for undergraduates at Ryerson University and decided to create a York FGS version that matched learning skills with well-being strategies.

Cathy Boyd-Withers
Cathy Boyd-Withers

“Wellness can impact learning and vice versa,” Irwin-Gardner said. “We wanted to provide a space to discuss these topics that are so important to graduate student life.”

They introduced the certificate in fall 2018. The learning skills portion of the program includes topics such as time management, procrastination, productivity and growth mindset. The wellness portion of the program looks at the dimensions of wellness and reminds students of tools and skills they may already have to help themselves. Irwin-Gardner also teaches relaxation skills, such as visualization, diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness.

“We do a pre-survey so we can tailor the program to the group’s needs,” she said. “We encourage them to adopt or try out the things that sound interesting and abandon or leave those that don’t.

“The students receive the certificate based on attendance, not on performance. We want to keep it informal and provide students with an opportunity to meet people from other disciplines they might not encounter otherwise. The peer connections are foundational to this program.”

The enthusiasm of students such as Doshi and Samuel are evidence that the priority FGS places on wellness is valuable.

“It was something to look forward to,” said Samuel. “It gave me a feeling of not being alone and being able to talk about whatever was going on because we all had stress and struggles. And every session, I met someone new.”

Doshi agreed.

“I have only good things to say about the certificate,” he said. “It makes you feel that it’s OK not to be OK – that you need to accept that you’re human. I’m a little more mindful and accepting as a result.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, Innovatus