When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Bridge Program, which helps newcomer youth in Canada adapt to their new surroundings and set meaningful goals for their future, took on both common and unique challenges.
Rachel Nelson, an associate director at the Office of Community Engagement (OEC) at SFU, who helps lead the program, says it exemplifies partnership and engagement with a community full of new faces.
SFU’s Surrey Campus and TD Community Engagement Centre have partnered to create programs, such as the Bridge Program, for low-income families, refugees and newcomers in Canada learning English. The Bridge Program aims at supporting and mentoring high school-aged students learning English in Surrey’s School District 36. Like most educational programs, the Bridge Program was moved online in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic started. That change had a major impact on its participants.
“It was hugely impacting youth in our Bridge program who did not have the knowledge or access to a computer or a reliable way to get online,” says Nelson. “As community services were shifting online, the burden fell heavily on these students who often come from large families with technological and economic barriers.”
The challenges and unexpected benefits of the pandemic
“Remote learning was challenging for youth in our Bridge Program, as many came with significant education and literacy gaps, let alone not having a reliable computer to access classes at the start,” says Nelson. “Not being able to receive one-on-one support made it very difficult for these youth to suddenly shift from having quality in-person academic support to attending virtual classes.”
Fortunately for the Bridge Program, the CEC saw a surge of SFU students volunteer to help out during the pandemic. Many of the barriers to volunteering created by commuting were eliminated as school and work went online.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many changes ensued for SFU students that likely contributed to the surge of volunteerism,” says Nelson. “All of a sudden, the things in daily life that took up time and energy such as commuting for classes or going to work were changed.”
Furthermore, SFU’s Surrey Campus has access to a wider pool of volunteers because physical distances were eliminated by the virtual shift.
“They came from all over Greater Vancouver. Since the commute time was no longer a factor in their decision making process to volunteer, we saw many more students from different regions engaging in SFU Surrey – TD CEC programs,” says Nelson, also noting that volunteering offered an opportunity to socialize while also making a difference.
“Students no longer had to worry about squeezing in a volunteer opportunity between their classes and work schedules,” says Nelson. “They could just log in to their devices and spend an hour or two volunteering their time for initiatives they were passionate about.”
“These virtual volunteer opportunities provided an opportunity for students to not only connect and engage with other people, but to use their skills and sphere of influence to make a positive difference in their communities during such a tumultuous and uncertain time,” says Nelson.
Engaging with the community
Nelson says many of the Bridge Program’s participants, who come from refugee backgrounds or other lived experiences, cannot always access available support programs.
“Youth and families who come with traumatic experiences often do not understand that mental health support services could be of assistance,” says Nelson. “What makes it even more difficult is there is still a lack of these services available in languages other than English. Attending counselling sessions in some cultures can be problematic and families feel shame or do not understand the purpose of attending counselling.”
Despite the success of the Bridge Program, Nelson sees room for improvement in the
“There has been enormous growth in need for the Bridge Program to continue to be embedded in the School District,” she says. “In order for our refugee youths to succeed, it is essential that schools and other community service providers collaborate to manage our students from the beginning of the Bridge Program to the end of the schooling career.”
The Bridge Program will be taking on new volunteers December 2021 to January 2022. For more information on the Bridge Program and how to get involved, visit: www.sfu.ca/students/get-involved/programs-and-opportunities/bridge-program.html