By Neale McDevitt
It is apparent almost immediately upon sitting down with Leslie Copeland that she is, above all else, a people person. She doesn’t like closing her office door because it cuts off the supply of fresh air from her open window to the staff members inside the First-Year Office (FYO).
“We couldn’t function, we could not do what we do without our wonderful team and nothing we do, nothing, would happen without student volunteers,” she says of the people working just outside her office. “We really are blessed.”
The main mission of Copeland and her team of five full-time staff members and hundreds of student volunteers is to help McGill’s 6,000 new undergraduates and 2,500 new graduate students make the challenging transition to life at the University. Part mentor, part life coach, part cheerleader and, yes, part surrogate parent, Copeland takes her job very much to heart. Recently, the McGill Reporter spoke to her about all things First Year.
What is the FYO’s mandate?
It’s a three-fold mandate. Obviously, it is the transition and welcoming of our new students – undergraduates, grads, visiting students, exchange – we’re here for all of them. We want to make sure that their start at McGill is as positive as possible and to make them feel like they belong as quickly as possible.
The second part of the mandate is to offer them the necessary support throughout the year to ensure that they are successful at McGill.
Finally, we want to help them make personal connections with campus life and, in particular, with other students so they feel like they have a home here.
Our guarantee is that if you come to our office we will answer your question. And if we can’t answer it, we will find someone who can.
What are some of the challenges faced by new undergraduate students?
They are managing many different aspects of their lives for the first time – health, money, time, sleep. As well, they have been the achieving student from where they’ve come from and now they in a sea of achieving students. They have all these expectations coming in but they don’t fully understand what it takes to stay up on the workload.
On the simplest level, they have to understand the terminology: what’s a faculty, what’s a department, what’s a school, what’s a credit?
How do you go from a class of 30 to a class of 600 and how do you maximize that class time? You have to relearn how to learn in school. Undergraduates are creating a new normal and that takes time.
Any advice for them early on?
I always say that classes start on Sept. 1 but they don’t start school until Oct 1. September is sensory overload – everything is being effected, their whole lifestyle. I tell first-year students to expect the unexpected and allow for transition. Their expectations are so high – and they should be – but they should take it one day at a time and know that [First-Year Office] is here. They don’t have to do it alone.
How does FYO help that transition?
We try to make sure new students get connected with our orientation leaders, who are senior students not far removed from their own days as a first-year student. It is important to have senior students share their knowledge and experiences with incoming students. In fact, in our own Orientation Centre we’re creating a list called “What I wish I’d known in first year.”
We also have student life ambassador programs or buddy programs. New students get accepted to McGill so much earlier than when they actually arrive on campus and we want to provide support throughout the summer. They can communicate with a student ambassador – a senior student in their faculty – and they get answers from a student’s perspective (although we prepare each ambassador so they can be fully informed). It’s all about new students learning from someone who has just been through it.
We do presentations over the summer, but also have them up on the web so that overseas students can see them as well.
What about the rest of the year?
We put out a newsletter for them online from October to April that follows what they are experiencing throughout the academic year. We can give them a schedule of what is happening, including any pertinent course withdrawal deadlines, opt-out dates, etc.
Throughout the year we also phone our first-year students to say; “We know you’re here. Remember we’re here for you.” And then there’s a conversation that sometimes lets us promote a service or an activity that can help them stay acquainted or get the help they need.
For example, during midterms we’ll call and ask them how they are feeling and use the opportunity to remind them they have doctors at their disposal and a tutorial service. I see us as a conduit to the University and the support services…
In a way, you’re directing traffic.
Yes, but it can be a fairly involved process. When a student asks to meet an advisor, it can seem straightforward, but often it’s not. For every question we’re asked, we have to ask at least two or three more. “Are you a graduate or undergraduate? Are you an international student? What kind of advising are you looking for – specific course advising or “I’m not sure if I’m in the right program” advising. From there we try to direct them to counseling services, career planning services, their academic office, etc.
What about workshops?
We hold academic workshops that cover topics like study skills, essay writing and multiple-choice exams. We want to equip them with tools to succeed.
We also get great support from our Libraries. They give a wonderful workshop on untangling the academic web. These students will be using the Internet for papers, but that photo that they want to include in their paper – is it free or do you need a citation?
What is the best thing about working in FYO?
You get that immediate gratification of knowing you made a difference – you see it in a student’s body language once they’ve gotten the information they need.
But it is also wonderful working with such amazing people. We get such great support from hundreds and hundreds of students throughout the year. From Orientation to our buddies program to the Orientation Centre, the information sessions we have for CEGEP students in June – there isn’t a service in this building that doesn’t rely on student volunteers. We have a wonderful student body. They are so giving it makes it very gratifying for the rest of us.
And I have a terrific team on staff here. I don’t do this alone. It’s those people out there.
For more information on the FYO go to www.mcgill.ca/firstyear/