University of Waterloo Information Systems Specialist develops breakfast club to encourage social connection
When Linda Zhang attended the Student Mental Health Forum in March 2018, she was struck by the number of international students in attendance that were asking for better supports to help with experiences of loneliness, financial burdens, and challenges with integrating into Canadian culture. Their experiences resonated with Linda, who reflected on her own experience as an international student and her own challenges as a student. From this, the breakfast seminar series was born, which takes place at Claudette Millar Hall. Students gather at 9:30 a.m. to eat breakfast and network and then carry on at 10 with wellness seminars or exercises.
According to Zhang, the intended goal of the series is to create a sense of community for international students and it is supported by volunteers from a variety of departments on campus. Volunteers include staff, faculty, alumni, and retirees and the program has no full time staff. “It gives students the sense that the university and the people within it care about them,” Zhang says. Participants get to interact with people they wouldn’t necessarily encounter in their academic life and make connections.
"I get to know so many wonderful people from so many other departments and faculties across campus that I wouldn't have had the chance to interact with otherwise."
Over time Linda notes that participants have given very positive feedback, speaking of the connections that they have made and how they have continued to be fostered beyond the seminar. For example one of her co-workers got to know a young couple doing their PhD at UW through the breakfast series. Her co-worker invited the couple to her house before Christmas to teach them about Christmas and now they meet bi-weekly outside of the breakfast seminars as friends. Linda herself has experienced her own personal social benefits through the series, “I get to know so many wonderful people from so many other departments and faculties across the campus that I wouldn’t have had the chance to interact with otherwise.” Just as she hoped for her students, she has developed her own sense of community and belonging to the university.
Attendance to the breakfast series fluctuates depending on the time of term, however the January 19th event had a registration limit and was full in a matter of days after registration opened. Attendees are about 40% undergraduate students, 45% graduate students, and 5% post-docs. Linda notes that as the seminars continue she sees an increased awareness and interest from both participants and volunteers to be involved. The series has also received a grant from International Waterloo to fund the operating costs.
"Maybe this project inspires something bigger and better for students..."
When we asked Linda what her goals for the future of this project is she says she hopes that “maybe this project inspires something bigger and better for students” or that “Perhaps we could get continued financial support to run the series.” She tells us that it could be run without funding, given the enthusiastic volunteer base, however they would need to do without the fancy breakfasts that draw students in.
Linda’s story is one of many University of Waterloo community members who are finding new and interesting ways to foster wellness on campus. To learn more about how you can be involved in initiatives that aim to increase wellness in our community or read other inspiring stories, visit the Wellness Collaborative website.