When the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry first closed its doors to all but essential emergency services, Ryan Schure wondered how the COVID-19 restrictions would affect students and faculty who were suddenly deprived of in-person connections.
Then he had an idea.
“I was thinking of my synagogue during quarantine,” says Schure, who is an assistant professor. “Everyone got a personal call just to check in, and I wondered how that could be translated here.”
His solution was the house initiative. Slated to roll out in its beta phase this month, students in the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) program will each be assigned to one of approximately 20 “houses.”
The groups will serve an important function: each will host both a faculty mentor as well as upper-year mentors. The volunteer faculty mentors, approximately 20 in all, will connect with each student assigned to their house to offer support, information and advice. Students will also benefit from connections to others students. For its inaugural year, the program will incorporate only first- and second- year students; third- and fourth-year students will be assigned to houses next September.
Schure knows first-hand just how vital connections between students and faculty members can be – and the difference they can make to students’ success. Appointed as a faculty member on July 1, Schure is a double graduate of the Faculty of Dentistry, having obtained his DDS degree in 2010, and his Master of Science in periodontics degree in 2013.
While Schure was very involved as a student – he was treasurer of the Dental Students’ Society and sat on a number of committees – he knows that’s not going to be the approach taken by every student.
“There are some students who may never speak to a faculty member outside of a classroom setting,” says Schure. “With this program, I want to break down some of those barriers.”
“We’re trying to develop a sense of belonging, well-being, community and friendship,” adds Assistant Professor Richard Rayman, the faculty’s director of student life who is also a co-lead of the program’s development and implementation. “We’d like the students to get to know each other better and interact. We’re not here to counsel. We’re just here to listen.”
The initiative will integrate the faculty’s two existing mentorship programs, both led by students.
That includes Big Sibs/Little Sibs, a one-on-one mentorship program that matches a second-year “big sibling” with a first year “little sibling,” with the aim of helping smooth incoming students’ transition into the professional program.
“In first year, things are really tough,” says David Dunbar, second-year class president and one of the students who helped Schure fine-tune the house concept. Dunbar felt the mentorship programs would be an important resource to continue within the house system. “Leaning on upper-years is very helpful. It’s especially helpful this year, which is so strange and isolating.”
The peer mentor program will also be folded into the new initiative. Also student-driven, the peer mentor program assigns first-year DDS students into groups, which are then assigned two upper-year mentors: one in third year and another in fourth. Typically, there are nine groups in total.
Madonna Rofaeel, a fourth-year student and one of the leads of the peer mentor program, says the programs are valuable. “We really reach out as often as we can,” she says. “We’re here to help them. I hope they’ve been finding it helpful for their transition.”
Peer mentors connect with mentees on a range of topics and offer students academic as well as social support. This year, for instance, the mentors held a virtual presentation on stress and time management during the demanding DDS program. They also recorded a video, offering first-year students advice.
“Mentorship is extremely important,” says Rofaeel. “I’m here today because of all the mentors I’ve had. I feel obligated to pay it forward, to share what I wish I knew [when I started].”
The house initiative will build upon and expand those existing mentorship relationships. “Your big sibling will be in your house,” says Schure. “An upper-year peer mentor or mentors will be in your house. We’re integrating all these programs a little more within the faculty.”
A compelling idea in a regular year, the house initiative takes on greater significance as 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic wears on.
“Should there be another lockdown this year, we want it in place,” Schure says.
While health and wellbeing is a priority for the faculty – a strategic working group was struck in 2019 to develop initiatives and programs to boost wellness awareness among students, staff and faculty – COVID-19 has made finding new ways of coping with the stresses of daily life and dental school of even more important.
“It’s crucial, especially now with COVID,” Rofaeel says.
With its focus on building resilience and support systems within the student community, the house initiative may be the silver lining to the cloud.
“My hope is that our school can continue to operate, at least to some degree, in person,” says Dunbar, adding that it’s also a way to check in on people’s mental health. “Either way, [the house system] may help some people feel more interconnected, and that their voice is heard in the right way.”
The feedback from faculty and students has been positive.
In fact, Rofaeel says her only regret is the house system wasn’t available throughout her time at the Faculty of Dentistry. “I wish I had this opportunity when I was going through the program,” she says. “It will be really exciting to see how it benefits first-years, upper-years and mentors.”