On Campus

Identity and location on campus

Mature student or otherwise, everyone needs a place to feel at home in the sea of faces on campus

My recent spat of blogs about mature students seems to have attracted some notice. We had a discussion about ACMAPS in the comments of one piece, and other groups have contacted me to tell me what they’re up to. In particular, I received some mail drawing my attention to the Ban Righ Centre at Queen’s University. Rather than reproduce that information or extol the virtues of something I honestly haven’t witnessed myself, I’ll invite you to check out their website via that link. It seems like they have a lot of stuff going on over there, and that it’s very well-resourced. Certainly I’d encourage any female, older student to check out the services available.

So that’s the interesting twist here. The Ban Righ Centre is specifically for mature women attending Queen’s, though the Director there informs me that men are welcome as well. The Centre was founded by women who appreciated the challenges specific to older women attending school. I don’t want to put the Centre in a box or presume to speak to it’s mission (I’ll send the Director a link to this article, and allow her to do that herself if she likes) but the Centre seems founded around the figure of the women who, after a period of devoting her time partially or fully to her family, returns to school in later life.

What fascinates me about the Centre is not that it serves a kind of niche student concern in a way that I’ve never seen before. I’ve seen Women’s Centres and I’ve seen Mature Student organizations. It isn’t so surprising to see the two concepts combined. What’s interesting here is the sudden connection I see to so many other spaces and resources that I’ve been aware of for quite some time and somehow just accepted as part of my environment.

I’ll offer three quick examples. Just down the street from me there’s The Newman Centre, which is, to use their words, “a Roman Catholic Student Centre and Parish at the University of Toronto.” Again, follow the link if you want details. Down the street from them is the Hillel Centre at the University of Toronto, serving Jewish students. Very close by is First Nations House, serving the needs of Aboriginal students. And there’s more. I could go on and on. Whatever your personal characteristics, and the aspects of your identity that you relate to most meaningfully, the odds are very strong there’s some kind of campus organization that reflects it.

These are all, quite deliberately, examples of groups and organizations that have their own space and significant resources. I’m not talking about campus clubs here – I’m talking about fully-fledged organizations with full-time employees and distinct missions and (I suspect) not-for-profit corporate identities separate from the universities they serve. In other words, they provide a lot of resources to tap into and a lot of opportunities for involvement and contribution.

I could go on and on about any of these organizations. Or dozens of others besides. It doesn’t have to be about mature student status, or religious identity, or race. There are International Student Centres, to serve International students and aid them in their adjustment and particular concerns. There are spaces for LGBTQ students. There are so many that I was afraid to write another article about this one cool group that got in touch with me, because I might find myself doing this for the next year, and I’d never run out of groups.

There are three things every one of these groups has in common. First, they’ve successfully tapped into resources at their home institution and likely from outside supporters as well, in order to offer a more supported and valuable university experience to the group they serve. Second, they serve an identifiable group of students with issues unique to them, so that in addition to the resources and space, they gain from mutual support and association with people who share their identity. Third, they offer a contained space, a sense of belonging, and a location on campus.

More and more, I am firmly convinced that the most important aspect of each of these groups, despite the full value of everything they do, is in the third point. University is so bloody big and anonymous. Even the “smaller” campuses are so big it’s easy to drown in a sea of faces. And so many students, especially those with some reasons to feel different (though don’t we all have those?), can feel very lost. That personal space, that sense of location, becomes vital. In some ways, The (fill in blank) Centre on campus becomes the contemporary replacement for the fraternity or the sorority. It reduces the sea of faces to a smaller, knowable community.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time already, and I’ll have more to say shortly. For now, I’d like to thank Barbara Schlafer (Director of the Ban Righ Centre) for turning my thoughts in this direction, and of course for the nice space they offer to mature women at Queen’s. This recent series of posts started with concern for mature students, but really we all need some place to belong, regardless of identity, and it’s vital for every student to find that. I would strongly encourage every student, at every institution, to look more closely at the many niche organizations and services available to them. If you feel like something is missing, and you’re lacking in support, you might well find it there.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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