Starting your first year of university is a big moment. It often means moving away from home for the first time, starting new classes and making new friends. Starting something new and unfamiliar can feel scary.

Plus, back-to-school has never looked quite like this. With most undergraduate classes happening online for the Fall Term, many students will be studying from home. Add it all together, and it’s easy to understand why incoming students might be nervous.

Enter Waterloo Ready, a community-building program developed by the Student Success Office (SSO) that helps our incoming students build a sense of community, while offering resources, online modules, tips and to-do lists to support the transition to university life.

A new approach to community building

A cornerstone of Waterloo Ready is peer mentorship. To meet the challenge of needing to connect virtually, the SSO invited incoming students to join a small online community with other students from the same Faculty. These communities were led by upper year students, known as Peer Mentors.

Miila Tuju is the peer mentor for ENV Community 73, a group of students entering the Faculty of Environment. The fourth-year Planning student says the number one concern her group shared with her was how to form connections, especially online.

“I had a good amount of students express that they would have otherwise felt very lonely and anxious without the group,” she says. “I think at some point everybody brought that up. They were nervous about that, or they weren’t sure how to navigate, especially for this virtual Fall Term.”

That was the case for Mattea Schaap, who credits the peer community with easing the transition to a new city and a new stage in life. “I feel a lot less worried about the community and knowing people. That was a big concern that I had,” explains the first-year Planning student. “Miila also taught us a lot about the campus. I have never been to Waterloo, so it was neat to learn about all the cool things that our campus has to offer."

Her classmate Laynol Eap agrees. Moving to Waterloo from Collingwood, Ontario was a big step. He was concerned about forming bonds before he was introduced to the peer group. “I felt like I was kind of alone, going into the program. But now we’ve all gotten to know each other. And we even have our own group chat where we’ve been talking it up lately. It’s nice.”

An answer to every question

Tuju provided the students in her community with a list of resources to help them navigate their first year and answered their questions about everything from navigating the city by transit to using academic citations. She even asked the group to swap recipes to inspire students moving away from home for the first time.

Connor Phillips won't be leaving his hometown on Manitoulin Island for Waterloo until January 2021. But he says that a welcoming mentor and practice with the tools he'll use in his Environment, Resources and Sustainability courses, like LEARN and Microsoft Teams, have prepared him to take on his first year at Waterloo. He'll be balancing studies with a part-time job as a lifeguard, and Waterloo Ready has prepared him for that too. “We talked about that a bit. Especially around scheduling with a calendar and making sure you have a planner. I’m definitely going to be using those tools.”

Schaap has settled into her residence and feels ready to tackle her first year, thanks in part to Waterloo Ready and the guidance she continues to receive from Tuju. “I am so thankful that we had it. I’m genuinely very grateful for the experience because it made me feel a lot more comfortable,” she says.

Despite taking a leading role in helping students prepare, Tuju credits each of the participants for making the most out of this new experience. “There’s only so much I can do on my end. The big part was the initiative shown by all of them to come and to openly participate with a group of strangers. It was really awesome, and that’s what made the experience a success.”

Continue to connect

The start of the school year doesn’t mark the end of peer mentorship. Students continue to connect with peers and upper-year students through Orientation. The Student Success Office is offering online peer success coaching appointments and a Foundational Training Program so you can build your mentorship skills in the Fall Term and beyond. The Student Leadership Program can also prove you with the opportunity to connect with peers from other programs and learn core leadership skills from upper year students.

Visit them to learn more about online opportunities for academic development, international student resources and other ways to get involved.