Patrick Kelly oversees the House Calls program, which involves volunteers going door-to-door to check on students

A visit from a caring person can go a long way toward making a university student feel welcome and supported. Following its success in the 2017 winter semester, the University of Guelph’s House Calls program will return this year.

Through the program, U of G staff, administrators and volunteers reach out to about 4,700 students living in campus dorms to let them know they are part of a caring, helpful campus community.

“Volunteers go through the buildings, knock on students’ doors, and have a conversation with the student to see how they are doing,” says Patrick Kelly, associate director of Residence Life.

“And they will do a bit of a health check in terms of the student’s wellness, to see if they need some added supports.”

Kelly says volunteers from all areas of campus, including senior administrators, faculty, professional staff and campus police, will team up with Residence Life staff to visit students in various residences.

“We’re not just saying we care but actively showing it.”

The program is a friendly check-in with students, a way to personally welcome them, find out how they are doing and what they need. It is intended to demonstrate to students that professional staff at the University care about their well-being, Kelly says.

Students will be made aware of the many activities and supports available to them, including mental health services.

Sara Pianta, now a second-year biomedical sciences student, received a visit from a house caller in her first year. A long, helpful conversation ensued after she answered the knock at her door.

“At first, I was a little bit intimidated, because important people were coming to visit me,” Pianta says. “But after talking to them and seeing they were actually interested in my student experience, it was something that really stuck with me. I was surprised that not only were they coming around, but they were genuinely inquiring about our experience.”

When it comes to mental health challenges experienced by students, Brenda Whiteside, associate vice-president (student affairs), says it’s vital to understand the root causes.

“We don’t want our students to get to the point where they feel overwhelmed,” she says. “So how do we support them in finding ways to deal with the normal stresses of university life? We know that prevention is more effective than intervention.”

Students experience significant pressures from many directions. Leaving home and starting a new life at university is challenging. They may feel their future depends on succeeding in their studies, even as they hear the message that a post-secondary degree is not enough, Whiteside says.

The isolating effects of social media contribute to the fear and anxiety, she adds. Human connection beyond social media is vitally important.

Whiteside says the University offers a wide range of activities, events and opportunities to address students’ diverse interests and to ensure that students are engaged in the campus community.

Last winter, U of G president Franco Vaccarino and Charlotte Yates, provost and vice-president (academic), joined other senior administrators and volunteers for House Calls. Vaccarino even had an impromptu guitar jam session with one student.

Both the president and the provost will participate again this year, along with Whiteside and Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research).

Nearly 2,000 students heard a rapping on their door during that first event, which saw about 60 volunteers in all visit roughly 700 rooms each evening for three nights.

This fall, the program runs Oct. 2-4 for about two hours each evening.

Kelly says participants will distribute a booklet produced this year listing “resiliency types of activities” and campus resources.

Students are also offered a free coffee and muffin from U of G Hospitality Services, and can enter prize draws.

“As we get all the feedback from house callers, we will follow up if there are any outstanding concerns,” Kelly says.