Holistic approach makes ‘sink or swim’ an outdated concept

U of T focus is on development of the well-rounded student

A better understanding of the importance of success in university as well as the implications on the student and society have developed over the last decade.

It used to be sink or swim; otherwise, you were out, recalls Lucy Fromowitz, assistant vice-president,  Student Life. “But now, we recognize the importance of the development of the whole person.”

The shift to holistic education is a far cry from a time when attending an institution of higher learning was solely about getting an academic education and good grades. “We now understand how the curricular and co-curricular work together to support students through their experiences,” says Fromowitz.

With a total student population of more than 85,000 across three campuses – including 16,000 international students from 150 countries – U of T is Canada’s largest university.

It’s vital with a large population like U of T’s to ensure that students are engaged. And it’s not just about making them happier or preparing them for what’s next, whether it’s a career or graduate school. Being involved also plays a pivotal role in their health, as well as in boosting academic performance and becoming productive citizens later in life.

Research shows that students who participate and feel connected to their school in a meaningful way achieve higher grade point averages.

“Bringing students together to have meaningful conversations and co-create programs fosters understanding. We have students from large cities and small towns, local, across the country and beyond,” says Fromowitz, who has worked in the education sector for 35 years.

‘When students are connected to groups, whether friends, classmates, or teammates, they have a network of people looking out for them’

Creating supportive communities for students is of prime importance, she continues, especially those entering universities with large populations. In order to encourage new ideas in an academic setting, students need to make connections and have meaningful conversations.

“Otherwise,” Fromowitz notes, “they remain isolated.”

Student clubs provide a good way to develop such communities. U of T’s more than 1,000 student clubs are themed around a wide range of interests, such as politics, arts, athletics and recreation, hobbies and leisure, global issues, cultural identities, and spirituality and faith.  Students also find community through their academic programs and in their research experiences.

Meanwhile, students with a great idea that enhances the student life of their campus can access resources such as the Hart House Good Ideas Fund which awards up to $1,000 in funding for projects such as curating an exhibit, hosting a film screening or organizing a conference.

Students can make use of these co-curricular experiences to gain skills for future employment or to apply for grad school. Participants can obtain a record of their co-curricular activities, which outlines both the activities and the competencies gained, for use on their resumé when they begin their job search.

This past year, some 8,300 U of T students and the 11,200 co-curricular activities they were involved in have been tracked in a large database.

As for students who are less inclined to join a club, U of T reaches out to them through academic-based study groups. The hope is that, through studying together, they build friendships and form their own communities – a critical factor in student well-being.

“Isolation is not healthy,” says Fromowitz. “When students are connected to groups, whether friends, classmates, or teammates, they have a network of people looking out for them who can contact someone from the university’s services – a registrar or someone who can get them access to help.”

Another pivotal component for student involvement is Community Engaged Learning (CEL), part of an academic program that extends beyond the classroom. Within the past 10 years, approximately 18,000 students participated in U of T’s CEL courses. Another 6,000 students were placed in volunteer roles in the community. Among the CEL participants was a student majoring in Italian, who was assigned to canvas a neighbourhood of older, Italian speaking residents to discuss issues relevant to the local election. The student got the opportunity to practice her language skills and, in the process, gain an understanding of political issues in terms of the disconnect between citizens and politicians. Her experience prompted her to pursue a double major, adding political science to the mix, and get involved in grassroots politics – a development that enabled her to consider where she could apply her skills post-graduation.

“Out-of-classroom learning is transformative. Once you connect to new ideas and new ways of being, they become part of your belief system and values,” says Fromowitz. “And that’s part of good citizenship.  Our students pay attention to world issues. If it’s happening in the world, then it’s studied, debated and discussed on campus. And that’s really the type of learning on which U of T students thrive.”


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