Fall Reading Week for Guelph Students?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

  • "Japanese Squirrel edited version" by Ma2bara, Edited by Pegleess Barrios

    "Japanese Squirrel edited version" by Ma2bara, Edited by Pegleess Barrios

Written by Pegleess Barrios

In one of the most highly contested and controversial movements of the CSA Annual General Meeting, a student vote has passed a motion to push for a 2015 Fall Reading Week at the University of Guelph.

The motion was brought up as part of the existing initiative that already brought students an extended long weekend in Fall 2014. Peter Miller and Brittany Skelton, two of the student politicians behind the campaign, state that they sit on various committees and focus groups concerning student mental health.

According to Miller and Skelton, fall reading weeks have been adopted by Ontario campuses facing high levels of student suicide rates and slews of reports noting the deteriorating state of student mental health.

"Mental health problems on campus increased by 15 per cent," reported Skelton. Upon further discussion, it was revealed that this statistic actually reflected the influx of students using campus mental health services. The number appears to have been cited from the University of Guelph 'Mental Health Awareness' webpage, which contains revealing information about the state of students' mental health both in Guelph and beyond. Some quick facts include:

Universities in general report that:

  • 7 per cent of student populations accesses counselling services with the most common problems being anxiety and depression
  • 28 per cent of students registered at their disability offices are identified with psychiatric or psychological disabilities.

At the University of Guelph:

  • the number of students who access counselling has increased 10 to 15 per cent each year over the last five years.
  • the predominant age range for University of Guelph students is from 17 to 22 years old.
  • students registering with the CSD with psychiatric and psychological disabilities have doubled over the last five years
  • Student Health Services reports a similar increase in the number of students who present themselves with symptoms of mental illness

    Skelton and Miller felt that a fall reading week would help alleviate some of the stress and intensity of the semester, by giving students an extra week to go home and see friends and family.

    Many students spoke of their experiences with mental health issues and the pressures of school, praising the motion and asking for it to be passed. The sheer number of students openly reporting their own struggles with mental well-being said a lot about the issue, but also about the nature of the CSA AGM as a safe space where people could speak of their personal experiences and not be ridiculed or isolated.

    The motion was not passed easily. Several students raised complaints, saying that a fall reading week would only be a superficial fix to a much more complex problem.

    "Instead of asking for a reading week, we should be asking for improved mental health services and more counsellors," a student declared, while the audience snapped their fingers in a quiet wave of approval. The need for a deeper-level solution was echoed by other students, who discussed the pressures put on them with their class schedules, unyielding professors, lack of time to access student accessibility services, and not enough support for first year students.

    Guelph student Nicole Kerry added, "As someone in first year it's been a grooming experience. I've seen breakdowns. I've seen crazy shit."

    Another argument to the proposed push for a fall reading week amounted to a conflict in scheduling. Numerous engineering students expressed concerns that the long weekend in fall 2014 already caused some of their requisite classes to be cancelled since they were simply unable to make the course schedule work once those days had been taken away.

    "I take seven courses," one engineering student said, "And if we have a fall reading week, I will have all my assignments due the day I come back."

    Another engineering student raised another concern regarding the course cuts due to the missing days. "If we have an entire week off, I'm worried even more courses will be taken away. I may not be able to finish my degree." 

    Concerns for International Students, out-of-province students, and co-op students were also raised. Would residence still be open? What would International Students do rather than go home for the week? Would out-of-province students be lonely and perhaps suffer adverse mental health effects rather than positive from spending a week in isolation in Guelph? 

    Others spoke of their experiences with a winter reading week, saying they had gone home in first year expecting to see all their friends and family, but felt sad and isolated when they found their friendships had changed, their families were busy with their jobs and lives, and they were sitting at home with nothing to do. But as one student brought up, to the assembly's whoops and cheers, "It's not 'go hang out with your friends week', it's 'reading week' - so just go read!"

    A final argument came from a student who identified as having mental health issues. With the increase in access to student mental health services in mind, he proposed that perhaps the CSA should consider the other side of the number. Perhaps, he suggested, the increase in students using campus mental health services indicated a decrease in mental health stigma at Guelph, and more students were finally feeling comfortable to seek help and support for their issues.

    Other concerns reflected the dates of the proposed reading week. Skelton and Miller's reassurances that the reading week would not cause the semester to start early or end later lead only to more questions as to whether the reading week would therefore cram an already jam-packed courseload into an even smaller amount of time, or if the reassurances were unfounded.

    Although the motion was passed, it does not promise a reading week, just an official push on behalf of the student body to ask the administration to implement one themselves. With the highest attendance to any CSA AGM in recent years, it will be interesting to see where this vote leads and if students will find themselves with a week off next year.

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