In mid-November the hallway in front of the Renison Registrar’s Office got a new addition – a brightly painted green bench, with some comfortable cushions and some signage. “The Connection Bench” as it is called, was placed there by a group of Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students, who are using it to encourage peer-to-peer connections on the Renison campus.
The bench was the result of an assignment in the BSW course, Advanced Macro Practice, which asked students to look at the Renison community as a whole make the community better by identifying and attempting to fix something that is missing to make it completely healthy and well-functioning. After conducting a survey of students, they decided to focus on feelings of isolation. Though they anticipated that international students would often feel isolated because they are typically far from home, they were surprised to find that isolation is a nearly universal feeling among students. The survey also showed that students generally knew about the mental wellness services offered on campus, but felt that there was no time for them, indicating that they often received the bulk of their support from their peers during the day, either in the hallway or in the classroom. With this in mind, the group set out to create something that would encourage connections between students in a way that was more casual, a complement to the formal counselling and mental wellness services on campus.
Drawing inspiration from another project called “The Friendship Bench,” their concept took shape as a casual space where students could start a conversation. The inspiration project had a simple concept – anyone who was sitting on the bench was open to talking about mental health. The Renison group modified that concept to be more broad – anyone sitting on the bench was open to having a conversation - any conversation. The exchange, says group members, may lead to friendship or deeper discussions about mental health, but the first goal is to just get people talking, with students steering the interaction to meet their individual needs.
Some of the many benefits, say the group, are that the bench is open 24/7, needs no technology, and no appointments are needed. The green bench, a Kijiji find, was painted by group members and moved into the space with the help of Renison Facilities. Group members are hopeful that the bench will live on after their time at Renison, creating links between students – sparking friendships and creating a more deeply connected community.
Group members sit on the bench after the launch event. Pictured: Chelsea Canniff, Crystal Hewick, Mirjana Kovacevic, Tera Kristen, Chantal Niyochuti, Steven Oliveira, Kaitlyn Randall, and Taya VanDerMeersch.