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UBC-wide effort results in warm welcome for incoming first year students during COVID-19

Transformative Learning | Strategy 15: Student Experience
Theme: Innovation
Dr. Joanne Fox teaches a class at Orchard Commons (before COVID-19). Photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

This summer, nearly one-third of the incoming class at UBC participated in a newly offered program to help them start their university journeys on the right foot. Academic Essentials courses are free, self-directed and online, designed to help new UBC students develop the learning skills they’ll need to succeed in first year at UBC and beyond.

Starting university can be a nerve-wracking experience during normal times. This year, as countries around the world continue to be affected by COVID-19, UBC is working closely with public health authorities to determine when it will be safe for students and faculty to return to campus. Recognizing the unique situation of this year’s incoming class, the idea behind the program was to create a bridge between secondary school and what first year students can expect to encounter in university level studies in order to build academic confidence.

Joanne Fox, Professor of Teaching at UBC Vancouver and Principal of Vantage College, was at the helm of a massive, university-wide effort to give students a solid foundation to build on in September. In a manner of months, a team of more than 20 faculty, staff and students from across both campuses came together to conceptualize the program, develop the courses and deliver them.

“We knew there is a lot of uncertainty for students and we were motivated to respond,” she says. “A lot of people came together in a very short time period to make this happen, and I’m really proud that we were able to create something new and innovative out of this crisis.”

An example of how the university is helping first-year students find their places at UBC (Strategy 15: Student Experience), all incoming students could choose from among three non-credit, optional six-week courses, or take all of them. They included Reading and Writing at University, which focusses on how to use the library, understanding academic articles and finding your writing voice; Readiness for University Mathematics, which focusses on the fundamentals of math and providing resources for students who need extra help; and Live Well to Learn Well, which offers tips for transitioning from high school to university with guidance on where to find academic and wellness resources online.

Twenty-one students were hired as Undergraduate Academic Assistants to offer personalized instruction as part of the program. Madison Knodel, a recent graduate from the Bachelor of Science program at UBC Okanagan, says she was appreciative of the opportunity to be a course facilitator and hopes the program helps new students to feel more confident and excited about entering university, especially with it being primarily online this year.

“Throughout the course I have had the opportunity to see many students grow,” she says. “Most started out rather nervous about the transition to an online world and worried about not being able to find a community because of it. But, over the past six weeks, I have seen so many communities blossom through my office hour sessions and discussion board posts, and I feel as though these students are very prepared to be in an online environment.”

The first offering of Academic Essentials was a resounding success, receiving close to 7,000 registrations. Based on positive feedback from students who took the courses and recognizing that the need to help students build confidence in their academic readiness will exist beyond the pandemic, the program will continue to be offered in future years.