When the University of Toronto Faculty of Dentistry first closed its doors to all but essential emergency services at the start of the pandemic, assistant professor Ryan Schure, DDS, MS, wondered how the shutdown would affect students and faculty who were deprived of in-person connections.
“I was thinking of my synagogue during quarantine,” said Schure. “Everyone got a personal call just to check in, and I wondered how that could be translated here.”
Schure then developed the house initiative. Slated to roll out in its beta phase this month, students in the Doctor of Dental Surgery program each will be assigned to one of approximately 20 “houses.”
Each house will host a volunteer faculty mentor and upper-year mentors. The approximately 20 faculty mentors will connect with each student assigned to their house to offer support, information, and advice.
During its inaugural year, the program will incorporate first-year and second-year students. Third-year and fourth-year students will be assigned to houses next September.
“The ultimate vision here is to develop personal relationships between manageable groups of students and faculty members,” said Schure.
Schure knows how vital connections between students and faculty can be, the university said. Appointed as a member of the faculty on July 1, Schure is a double graduate of the Faculty of Dentistry, obtaining his DDS in 2010 and his MS in periodontics in 2013. Also, he was treasurer of the Dental Students’ Society and sat on different committees as a student.
“There are some students who may never speak to a faculty member outside of a classroom setting,” said Schure. “With this program, I want to break down some of those barriers.”
“We’re trying to develop a sense of belonging, well-being, community, and friendship,” said assistant professor Richard Rayman, DDS, director of student life and co-lead of the program’s development and implementation. “We’d like the students to get to know each other better and interact. We’re not here to counsel. We’re just here to listen.”
The initiative will integrate the faculty’s two existing mentorship programs, both led by students. That includes Big Sibs/Little Sibs, a one-on-one mentorship program that matches a second-year “big sibling” with a first-year “little sibling,” with the aim of helping smooth incoming students’ transition into the professional program.
“In the first year, things are really tough,” said David Dunbar, second-year class president and one of the students who helped Schure fine-tune the house concept. Dunbar felt the mentorship programs would be an important resource to continue within the house system. “Leaning on upper-years is very helpful. It’s especially helpful this year, which is so strange and isolating.”
The peer mentor program also will be folded into the house initiative. Also student-driven, the peer mentor program assigns first-year DDS students into groups that are then assigned two upper-year mentors, one in the third year and another in the fourth. Typically, there are nine groups in total.
Madonna Rofaeel, a fourth-year student and one of the leads of the peer mentor program, said the programs are valuable.
“We really reach out as often as we can,” Rofaeel said. “We’re here to help them. I hope they’ve been finding it helpful for their transition.”
Peer mentors connect with mentees on a range of topics and offer academic and social support. This year, for instance, the mentors held a virtual presentation on stress and time management during the demanding DDS program. They also recorded a video offering first-year students advice.
“Mentorship is extremely important,” said Rofaeel. “I’m here today because of all the mentors I’ve had. I feel obligated to pay it forward, to share what I wish I knew [when I started].”
The house initiative will build upon and expand those existing mentorship relationships, the university said.
“Your big sibling will be in your house,” said Schure. “An upper-year peer mentor or mentors will be in your house. We’re integrating all these programs a little more within the faculty.”
The initiative takes on greater significance as the pandemic wears on, the university said.
“Should there be another lockdown this year, we want it in place,” Schure said.
Health and well-being is a priority for the faculty, as a strategic working group was struck in 2019 to develop initiatives and programs to boost wellness awareness among students, staff, and faculty, the university said. The pandemic also has made finding new ways of coping with the stresses of daily life and dental school even more important, the university added.
“It’s crucial, especially now with COVID,” Rofaeel said.
With its focus on building resilience and support systems within the student community, the university said, the house initiative may be the silver lining in the cloud.
“My hope is that our school can continue to operate, at least to some degree, in person,” said Dunbar, adding that it’s also a way to check in on people’s mental health. “Either way, [the house system] may help some people feel more interconnected and that their voice is heard in the right way.”
The feedback from faculty and students has been positive, the university said. In fact, Rofaeel said her only regret is that the house system wasn’t available throughout her time at the Faculty of Dentistry.
“I wish I had this opportunity when I was going through the program,” she said. “It will be really exciting to see how it benefits first-years, upper-years, and mentors.”
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