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Opinion: Don’t underestimate the value of building community at university

Taking advantage of resources, opportunities to form organic relationships
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

The past few months have been a stressful time for students finishing high school worldwide as they all work tediously to submit essays and applications to the universities of their dreams. 

As students continue to apply, it stands to reason that they have pressing questions regarding what is truly necessary to know about universities, including the University of Toronto, before applying. After completing one semester of my undergraduate degree, I have noticed a shift in my perspective of U of T from before and after my transition to university. 

After moving into residence in the fall, COVID-19 case surges have inhibited me from seeing my family. This was especially disheartening during the holiday season. Although I have taken advantage of U of T’s many extracurricular events and resources to find like-minded students, forming and maintaining friendships within university has been quite challenging. To be fair, schools worldwide have been struggling with the same issue as they have to conform to this new online ecosystem. 

Nevertheless, I have felt isolated, and unfortunately, I know I am not the only student in this situation. A 2007 intercollegiate study found a positive correlation between university students developing new friendships and their adjustment to the university environment. Despite the fact that university life will most likely return to its in-person norm within the coming years, the type of relationships — prominently friendships — a university facilitates will still be vital. 

A study performed by researchers at Northern Illinois University demonstrates the impact that fostering belonging and positive friendships among students can have on the transition to postsecondary education. The study found that positive changes in university belonging for first-year students were accompanied by less internalizing of problematic behaviours as well as improved scholastic competence, self-worth, and other measures of self-perception. Unfortunately, many schools do not prioritize their students’ sense of belonging and social needs. 

High school students should consider the complexities that come with creating a network of social groups at university. Since a lot of schools provoke more competitive environments, creating a balanced social life can be more difficult. There are limited indicators that demonstrate how exactly a school performs socially, but blogs can be a very helpful resource.

Many graduate and undergraduate students have blogs where they record their lives, including their socio-academic experiences. Although the reliability of this anecdotal evidence can be questionable, it can provide interested students with a sense of familiarity with student life at a specific school. 

At many larger schools, including U of T, these blogs are plentiful and come in video and written formats. This way, prospective students receive a more well-rounded view of how students function and can possibly find like-minded student bloggers with similar fields of study.

U of T Student Life is an official association that provides graduate and undergraduate students with programs and services under nine main categories: “Academic Success,” “Accessibility and Academic Accommodations,” “Clubs, Groups and Community Learning,” “Culture and Faith,” “Explore and Start a Career,” “Find a Place to Live On or Off Campus,” “Health and Wellness,” “International,” and “Leadership and Mentorship.” 

These resources are made easily accessible through Student Life’s “9 new things” email series. These biweekly emails contain nine upcoming seminars and events that students can take advantage of in order to improve the social, mental, professional, academic, and lifestyle aspects of their lives. 

Considering U of T’s highly competitive nature, the resources available to create a holistic learning environment have often been overlooked. U of T’s colleges host mental health, leadership, and social opportunities. Some colleges across all campuses also contain Living Learning Communities — resident-based groups that come together to discuss their similar interests in educational subjects like sustainability. 

U of T has a myriad of programs that build community before and during students’ first year. First-Year Learning Communities are groups that meet bi-weekly made up of first-year students registered in many of the same courses to participate in academic and social activities organized by upper-year students and faculty. First-Year Foundations Ones Programs feature courses for smaller bands of students in similar fields where they can gain specific opportunities such as guest speaker lectures. All of these organizations keep students engaged in their in-school networks. 

By incentivizing students to congregate in smaller groups with similar intrigues, U of T fosters less superficial communities. While the quality of these student networks varies between programs, this conclusion is in accordance with combined student experiences. By considering this information as well as one’s response to competitive environments, applying students can make informed decisions when it comes to U of T.  

While students tend to prioritize aspects of possible schools that benefit their outside-of-school success — such as their potential profit by investigating the salaries students in their field make after graduating and prospective school rankings creating connections within a given school is necessary to feed those outside-of-school experiences. Those connections start with creating community. U of T does so by coordinating countless bodies that students can join that are based upon one’s interests and goals at university. Thus, more organic relationships can form.

Giselle Dalili is a first-year social sciences student at New College.