Undergrads Teach this PhD Candidate

by Allyson OliphantVolunteer Group Facilitator

Allyson (above right) facilitates one of our weekly groups at the Eva Rothwell Centre’s afterschool program. We have been supporting this centre with our volunteers since they opened in 2006: when a school closed, concerned citizens rallied to reopen the building and provide a much-needed community centre for a neighbourhood with few resources

I have been a University student for a very long time… 8 years at this point, as I start my PhD. I volunteered every year of my undergraduate, loving every minute of it as I met some of my best friends, and every volunteer shift was a new learning opportunity.

As I went along in my academic career, I began working as a teaching assistant, marking papers, creating online tests, assisting in lectures, sometimes even lecturing to classes as large as 150 students. I felt a growing distance between myself and the students I was marking and evaluating. The constant barrage of emails flooding my inbox daily had begun to affect my perception of this next generation of undergraduates, as many were tinted with anger and frustration. I did what I could to ensure that I was fair, professional and forthcoming but, as the saying goes, “you can’t make everyone happy.” I was beginning to be affected by this inability to keep everyone happy.

I started with Student Open Circles in 2017, not as a facilitator or a volunteer, but as a paid intern. It was a learning curve! I was thrust back in to a world of undergraduates. Little did I know, this was exactly what I needed. In Student Open Circles, I was immersed in a community of the most compassionate, kind, and caring students I had ever met. They put themselves second, forgoing sleeping in or going out on their Fridays, to be a part of a community; a collective. It was eye opening, and oh so refreshing.

I decided, after my tenure as the intern ended and my PhD began, to return as a volunteer group facilitator myself. I missed the students! And I am so glad that I did. Once again, I am gifted time with these wonderful people from such diverse backgrounds, who want to be a part of something more and give back to a community they are growing to love. 

Their empathy, engagement and desire to help reminds me that there is always kindness to be found. They teach me something new every time we meet, and it has resonated throughout my academic work. I am so mindful now of the experiences of the students I mark and evaluate. They too, are faced with challenges and stresses and pressure and by far, most are kind and looking for reassurance. I feel I am able to offer more to them now than before thanks to Student Open Circles and their exceptional team of volunteers and facilitators.