McMaster Student Union services speak on operating services during the pandemic
Travis Nguyen/Photo Editor
MSU Service directors talk about their plans for the upcoming hybrid year
While the pandemic certainly took its toll on student life, a group of dedicated student leaders have been working tirelessly to maintain essential mental and physical health support services. There are many services that aim to create a safe(r) space on campus for marginalized communities. The McMaster Students Union has five such student services: the Women and Gender Equity Network, the Student Health Education Center, Maccess, Diversity Services and the Pride Community Center.
SHEC is a service for any McMaster University student looking for health-related support, childcare resources and breast-feeding spaces. They also offer free health items such as condoms, pregnancy tests and other external health resources.
“As MSU SHEC, we are a completely peer-run health advocacy, information and resource connection service. We operate under a broad definition of health, recognizing that wellbeing looks and feels different to each person. We provide free health supplies and educational materials and are dedicated to promoting our four strategic priorities: sexual and reproductive health, empowered bodies, substance use and mental wellbeing,” explained Anika Anand, the director of SHEC.
Similarly, WGEN offers peer-support services, but these are catered towards survivors of gendered violence and promoting gender equity.
“WGEN is a community-building and peer-support service run by and for women, trans and non-binary folks, as well as all survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. We focus on creating community and non-judgmental spaces among these folks through our safe(r) space, multi-event campaign weeks and peer groups. A big part of our mandate includes supporting folks through peer-support and free resources,” said Neha Shah, the director of WGEN.
Maccess, a service dedicated to disabled students on campus, on the other hand, is reorienting its disability activism strategy to not only raise awareness for disabilities on campus, but to actively advocate that disabled students on campus are invaluable to McMaster.
“We are a peer-support, community-building and activism organization, run both and by disabled students. We use the term "disability" to include folks who identify as having a disability, mental health concerns, neurodivergence, chronic health conditions and addiction. Our priority this year is to move away from just the recognition that disabled folks exist on campus, to where we recognize disabled folks are valuable on campus,” explained Emunah Woolf, the director of Maccess.
Diversity Services is extending the services it traditionally offers and has plans on adopting the long-established peer-support system used in the past by WGEN, SHEC and PCC to further extend its avenues to provide support.
“Diversity Services works on celebration, advocacy and generally uniting all folks across campus that identify as religious, cultural and other minorities. We are joining Maccess, PCC, WGEN and SHEC in their practices with the pilot of our new peer-support services. These are taking place as community circles that are closed spaces for people to come in and find people with similar intersections of identity as themselves,” explained Sofia Palma Florido, the director of Diversity Services.
Amidst the uncertainties of an entirely online 2020-2021 academic year and a hybrid 2021-2022 year, these MSU services have been compelled to adapt to these circumstances. They have had to drastically alter how they reach and provide their services to students. Across the services, the directors found offering services with the same engagement, quality and reach to be some of the most pressing difficulties of an online environment.
“In our workshops we would commonly have events that promote learning and expanding students’ horizons. When we moved to an online setting, everyone involved, be it volunteers, executives or guests at our events, were already so affected by Zoom exhaustion that it was very difficult to execute everything to its full potential," said Palma Florido.
Nonetheless, Palma Florido has strategies to appeal to first and second-year students to get involved with Diversity Services. She hopes that these strategies will engage students who have not had the opportunity to physically or extensively interact with Diversity Services and the other MSU services.
“Particularly targeting first and second-year students, my goal is to create and facilitate spaces for these new students who have never been on campus to find community. So, allowing for spaces where people can create community with people that have similar lived experiences is something I cherish for myself, and I really want to make that happen for new and returning students,” said Palma Florido.
Services like SHEC have also experienced a shift in their culture and dynamics operating online.
“We operate using a safe(r) space protocol which is creating that supportive, non-judgmental environment. This aspect has been tough to create digitally, so it did involve a lot of training on digital responsibility for our volunteers and execs to facilitate safe(r) space online,” said Anand.
Anand remains optimistic however, finding brighter sides to the constraints of an online environment and even embracing some of the pros it has to offer.
“Although operating virtually has placed additional barriers on access and visibility, it has also provided an additional layer of anonymity for service users trying to access our space and peer-support. Service users may feel more comfortable accessing services since they are not seen walking in and out of space,” explained Anand.
For a service like Maccess however, an online environment has allowed it to open itself up to more students, namely disabled students, who were unable to access the service in person.
“We tried to shift our metric of success for events by focusing on quality over quantity. So, if we have a Zoom event that three or four folks got out to and we had a great conversation and we were able to offer them support and community, we consider that a success. In some ways moving online did allow us to have more accessibility, for example an issue we had in the past is that folks’ disabilities would prevent them from coming to the Maccess space on campus,” said Woolfe.
Woolfe also draws attention to the opportunities a newly online community brought to disabled students on campus.
“Previously we were not able to create Discords as an online community created a lot of liability issues, but to have a space where disabled and immunocompromised folks could meet one another from their room or hospitals was a really positive thing we could do. It allowed us to provide captions, extended hours and other accessibility needs,” explained Woolfe.
Shah is viewing the online Fall term of WGEN as an opportunity for expanding WGEN’s services to meet intersectional and survivor communities’ needs online now, and to plan for a gradual opening to in-person activities.
“This year, we are planning on providing similar services that we did last year, but hopefully with more options to access these both online and in person. Julia, the assistant director and I have also planned to increase our focus on two key areas of our mandate: survivors and ease of access. We hope to increase the amount of programming we provide to survivors, especially with a focus on intersectionality — so providing closed spaces within our identity-specific events,” explained Shah.
Like the approaches taken by SHEC and Maccess, Shah is also mindful of student accessibility needs, and has ideas to make the WGEN space even more inclusive to student accessibility needs.
“We are working to address how it can be really intimidating to enter our safe(r) space, that there are many misconceptions about peer-support, and that there are also some concerns about accessibility about our physical space. We hope to work with other services to address these concerns,” explained Shah.
McMaster students are strongly encouraged to seek out support from MSU services if needed.