All Lauren Shepherd needed was five minutes and a pen to write a note for a first-year student at her alma mater. "You have already accomplished a great thing!" she wrote. "Keep working hard and enjoy your holiday break."
The simple note comes as part of a Western University campaign, dubbed the Kind Mail Project, that made a simple request: that alumni send a note of advice or encouragement to the student living in their old residence room. The results ranged from comical – "ask out that boy/girl!" – to brutally honest. "Bond over the misery that is exams," journalism graduate Stephanie Gordon wrote. "In the grand scheme of life, you will be more than okay."
Western expected only 200 alumni to participate when the pilot project was approved during this round of December exams. In less than three days, that number had spiked to more than 1,400. The campaign's success marks a change for alumni-relations networks, particularly in their interactions with younger members. Recent graduates – who may have limited disposable income – are often left outside the target demographic of their alma mater for participation in many projects, such as fundraising.
Ms. Shepherd, a 2014 graduaate of Media, Information and Technoculture and English Literature, said that while she understands the value of financial contributions, "things like this are so nice because it doesn't take much."
She chose a message she would have liked to see as a first-year, while struggling to understand psychology and multiple-choice tests before her most difficult exam. "It's such a small act of kindness," Ms. Shepherd said. "But at the same time, I know it makes such a huge difference."
For students like Mitch Cotic, grinding through his first exams as an engineering student, the pressure was at its peak. Last week, he was tested in linear algebra and statics – and he said the program is gruelling.
During the regular term, first-year engineering students will likely have classes from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 or 5:30 p.m., followed by labs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. "Then on top of that, I have extra homework and studying, and then extracurriculars and everything else going on," Mr. Cotic said.
Postsecondary education puts significant pressure on first-year-students. A 2009 report on Canadian colleges and universities based on data from Statistics Canada notes 14 per cent of first-year students drop out before the end of the year. Considering the 16 per cent dropout rate over all years, most decisions to leave postsecondary education occur in first year.
A report from the Canadian Organization of University and College Health in 2013, based on the responses of 30,000 postsecondary students, showed that 90 per cent of students felt overwhelmed by the amount of work they had; 50 per cent felt hopeless; and 63 per cent felt significantly lonely. Mr. Cotic said the stark difference between high school and university can also play a role in the pressures experienced, especially with a sudden uptick in the effort required to sustain marks.
"Handling the stress of trying to excel … it's hard," Mr. Cotic said. "It's a challenge not only I face."
Encouragement from the Kind Mail campaign helped with that pressure. His own note was from a woman in Philadelphia, with a quotation from Aristotle across the top.
"Choice, not chance, determines your destiny," he read. Beneath, a note was added. "No matter where you come from, who you are or what your insecurities might be, remember that you determine your own greatness."
Tanya Bhaskar – who graduated from Western's Management and Organizational Studies program in 2015 – said she wrote down the advice she wished she had received as a first-year student.
She started on the sixth floor of Western's Essex Hall, and financed her education working at three jobs while attending classes. She described herself as "really jittery" in first year, and felt unprepared for the new responsibilities and decisions. As December exams approached, she remembers anxiety and doubt.
"All I thought about was 'I miss home, I don't know what I'm doing here, I don't know if I'm good enough,'" Ms. Bhaskar said. "I kept thinking all these different things, like 'How am I going to do this?' I was an average student, I did school well enough that I was good enough to get through, but it was still a difficult time."
For her Kind Mail message, she reminded the new student they are not on their own: Others had been in their shoes and made it through. "I binged on Kinder Surprise and Vitamin Water for all of a month of my exam season, and I can tell you that wasn't the right decision to be making," she said, laughing. "Especially for a young alum, why are you going to tell those stories other than to help?"