New student counsellor positions and a digital virtual care tool will be created to expand the wellness service offerings for co-operative education students at the University of Waterloo. The new services come at a time of heightened uncertainty for students, as rapid changes in response to COVID-19 compound the stresses associated with co-op terms.

Starting in spring 2020, the new counsellors will provide one-on-one counselling to prepare students for the challenges they face during work terms — including complications arising from the pandemic. Students will have faster access to mental health and wellness support through phone and virtual consultation. The digital tool will enable students to interact securely with campus wellness practitioners using video-calling technology.

“The co-operative education program is an essential part of Waterloo’s unique student experience and it’s important that we meet the health and well-being needs of our co-op students,” says Chris Read, associate provost, students. “These counsellors will help our students make a supportive transition from on-campus to co-op terms and embrace the challenges of their work placement during this uncertain time.”

The counsellor positions are made possible by a generous $1 million gift from Neil and Gisele Murdoch, parents of Waterloo alumni.

“The University of Waterloo is a world class institution featuring a renowned co-op program,” say Neil and Gisele Murdoch in a joint statement. “Student mental health is important to us and our family. We are pleased to support this mental health initiative to ease student stress and promote mental well-being throughout the transitions inherent to the co-op experience.”

Even without COVID-19, co-op terms can present new challenges for students. They face competition for positions and undergo rigorous interview processes. While on co-op, students can feel removed from their peers, and thus have less social support than they do during their on-campus terms. Dealing with negative emotions while being isolated can exacerbate mental health symptoms and hurt their academic performance. In a recent analysis conducted by Campus Wellness, stress associated with co-op terms was found to be among the top reasons for mental health-related posts on social media.

The new counsellor positions extend Waterloo’s longstanding commitment to student wellness. In 2018, the University adopted the Okanagan Charter, a framework that calls upon post-secondary institutions to embed health into all aspects of campus culture. In June 2019, Waterloo launched the Wellness Collaborative, a cross-campus partnership that will oversee the implementation of the University’s Okanagan Charter commitments.

“The health and wellbeing of our students is and will always be our top priority,” says Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor. “Our world is currently being faced with a tremendous amount of change and uncertainty and our students are not immune to these pressures. Waterloo is here for them. The creation of these additional counsellor positions will ensure that our remarkable students are well-supported whether they are taking advantage of a co-op position or working diligently on their academics.”

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