Shloka Jetha is a woman who has always been on the move. After growing up in seven countries, the 23-year old has finally settled in Toronto and is pursuing her dream of working with at-risk youth. Part of what appealed to her about the new Professional Addiction Studies program at McMaster Continuing Education is that it’s online, which means she can set her own schedule and study on-the-go when she’s away from home.

But of course the biggest draw is the way Jetha feels the program will complement and expand upon what she learned in her McMaster degree in sociology, as well as what she is currently learning in a Child and Youth Care program at another school. With the goal of someday working in a clinical setting like the Sick Kids Centre for Brain and Mental Health, Jetha believes the more practical information she has about addiction and mental health, the better.

“I’m learning a lot in my current Child and Youth program,” Jetha enthuses, “but for me there is a bit of a knowledge gap that the McMaster Professional Addiction Studies program will help to close. It’s an incredibly complex field, every situation is new, and you need to be able read between the lines and understand the difference between what a troubled kid is saying and what’s actually going on in their life.”

Jetha believes that having the rich background knowledge the Professional Addiction Studies program will provide, and being able to link that information to her work in the field, will help her excel faster. Most importantly, she feels it will make her better and more effective at helping and healing kids in crisis.

“I’m specifically looking forward to gaining more knowledge about pharmacology, but also about other things as it’s difficult to learn on the job,” Jetha says. “I can learn a tremendous amount from the kids I work with, and that’s invaluable experience, but coming to them with a deeper knowledge base will allow me to talk with them about drugs and alcohol in a way I otherwise couldn’t.”

Jetha has been fortunate not to be personally touched by addiction, but has lost friends and people in her community from overdose. She is also familiar with the impact of this complex issue through the volunteer work she has done.

Even though this is an incredibly demanding career path, it’s one Jetha is proud and honoured to walk. She feels the good outweighs the bad and is determined to continue learning and helping as much as she can. The Professional Addiction Studies program at McMaster Continuing Education is uniquely designed to help her achieve that goal.

Applications for Spring term are open until April 29, 2019. Learn more at mcmastercce.ca/addiction-studies-program

 

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For the first time in its history, McMaster instigated a week-long break in the fall of 2015. This marked a major departure from the University’s previous practice which, following advocacy efforts from the MSU, included a short, two-day break added to a weekend at the end of October.

According to Heather Poole, a post-doctoral fellow working with the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Learning, many universities and colleges across the country have introduced a midterm break in their fall semesters to help students cope with the stress that tends to accompany the accumulation of midterms, essays and extra-curricular commitments. The break is also intended to help prevent students from dropping out of school.

The addition of a week-long break is in and of itself unremarkable. More and more institutions are adopting the practice every year. “In spite of the fact that this has become a pattern across the country, nobody has really looked at whether it actually helps students to manage stress and whether it helps them academically, and so that’s what we’re seeking to do,” explained Poole.

As part of a team of staff from multiple departments and divisions within McMaster, Poole and her co-researchers have taken to scrutinizing the break from multiple perspectives, asking students, professors and other members of the University’s staff to participate in surveys prior to and after the break last fall, as well as a follow-up survey in January. “We were interested in whether students are actually using this for stress-relief activities, whether they are using it for studying, with those sort of being the goal set out by the University, or whether they are going home to a part-time job or to family responsibilities,” she said. In addition to the surveys, a small number of students volunteered to send the researchers text message updates over the course of their Fall Break, and others had cortisol samples taken before and after the break to examine stress levels as cortisol spikes when a subject is under pressure. Despite the small sample size, Poole commented that a change in cortisol levels was observed, however she would not confirm whether levels increased or decreased as a result of the break.

“In spite of the fact that this has become a pattern across the country, nobody has really looked at whether it actually helps students to manage stress and whether it helps them academically, and so that’s what we’re seeking to do.”

While the group is still analyzing the multiple types of feedback they received, Poole has already been able to make some observations about some of the results, mainly the surveys thus far. Part of these surveys asked students to rate their perceived stress levels as well as check off items from a list of standard “stressors,” such as losing one’s keys or having to write a test. “When we look at what happened in patterns of pre- and post-Fall Break, the number of stressors that students were reporting was lower after the break, so they were actually experiencing … fewer stressful events after the fall break [however] they were reporting higher perceived stress after the Fall Break.” More analysis must be done before these results can be interpreted in a meaningful way, however the preliminary results show that the effects of McMaster’s Fall Break could be more complicated than simply reducing student stress levels. The team hopes to gain more insight into the complexities surrounding stress levels in follow-up focus groups.

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The response rate for the surveys was higher than Poole anticipated.

“People seem to be really interested in it, which is really good and I mean it’s not always that typical in research.”

The questionnaires sent out immediately before and after the break garnered about 2,300 responses each. The January follow-up survey was filled out by about 1,150 students. Of those who responded to the first two surveys, close to 80 percent reported that the Fall Break was beneficial. However, the remaining 20 percent found it to be detrimental on the whole. Poole hopes to look at the latter group with greater focus.

“It’s possible that students in a particular faculty are saying that their stress has increased or maybe it depends on how many assignments or tests they had right after the break,” she explained. This information could be given to instructors to improve how courses are structured.

Much like the students, professors gave a mixed review of the break.

“A lot of professors are saying that it was useful for them personally as sort of prep time, but then others are saying, well it’s kind of too early for that … which was also a thing that came out in a lot of the students comments.”

Due to the extensive planning required to schedule the McMaster school year, students will not see any short-term changes to the structure of their academic year. “I would be surprised if any changes come about based on this research for next fall, but we certainly feel like it’s been a worthwhile study and we’ve gotten a good sampling of the student voice,” Poole concluded. Poole and her team plan to release further results in June.

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By: Kaiwen Song

My 2015 winter term was pretty hectic. I had to prepare for two group presentations, three tests, a quiz, a full-day club event and an interview. While that sounds like enough stressors for an entire term, it all took place this week — the week after reading week. The break provides students with a chance to relax and recharge before facing their academic and extracurricular workload for the rest of the term. Unfortunately, it can also cause entire weeks — usually the one after the break — to be chockfull of assessments and commitments. Instead of a more even distribution of tasks over time, reading week concentrates those tasks to a much shorter time span.

The difficult situation that students find themselves in as a result of reading week is by no means impossible to navigate, but it does require committed organization and time management skills. We can take advantage of the ample free time that the break does provide to adequately prepare for all of their assessments. Unfortunately this means we must now be simultaneously prepared for up to five midterms as the break compresses the semester.

Reading week is by no means impossible to navigate, but it does require committed organization. 

Entering the break, we often have the false impression that we actually have a lot of time to prepare. A full week without class sounds like ample time. Many use the first few days to relax and unwind, and are then in a constant state of stress for the remaining days of the break. Others feel tempted to use reading week for a week-long vacation and find themselves overwhelmed when they return. The alternative is bringing the work on vacation, although that probably means you’ll fail at both reading and relaxing.

The break also makes group projects harder to complete as many students spend their week away from McMaster, which makes it much more difficult to meet in person.

Instead of feeling refreshed after the break, students experience burnout. We end up performing worse on midterms simply due to the stress that comes with all the assignments due the week back.

Reading week also impacts our exams. Because of the midterm recess there is no break between the end of classes and the beginning of exam period, which certainly doesn’t reduce the pressure.

There is one straightforward solution to all of these problems: remove reading week.

Assessments and extracurricular commitments will no longer be so concentrated, which may reduce student burnout and the intense demand for mental health services in the middle of the term. Students will also have more time to study for each individual assessment when they are spread out, which may result in better academic performance overall.

Best of all, there can now be a week between end of classes and the beginning of exams, a week that students can take full advantage of in order to excel academically.

Photo Credit: Camera Eye Photography

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With the fall break over, students have trudged back to school for the November grind, with the end of the semester in sight.

But next year, a new fall break format is expected to bring drastic changes to the structure of the fall semester at McMaster University.

In the Oct. 19 Student Representative Assembly meeting, lost in the interest in the year-end celebration decision, the SRA voted to recommend a new fall break format for next year. The proposals, brought forward by MSU president Teddy Saull, motioned for either a full week or a two-day fall break, beginning in the fall of 2015.

Following deliberation, members of the SRA voted 18-9-1 in favour of the full week recommendation to the Fall Break Committee. Rather than two separate breaks, the Thanksgiving weekend would be extended into a full week off.

"[The vote] shows that the group wanted it, but since it wasn't a unanimous vote, I think it also shows that there are a lot of different opinions out there, because it impacts every student in a different way," said Saull.

This is the second year of a two-year pilot project that began in the 2013-14 academic year, in which a two-day hiatus helped break up the long stretch of school between Thanksgiving and the beginning of exams. The pilot was reevaluated by a Fall Break Committee consisting of voices at all levels in the university, including the registrar, associate deans of various faculties, and the MSU president. With the approval of the SRA for the committee to pursue the full week, the proposal is expected to go through and be implemented in time for next year, said Saull.

“The Provost, from the feedback that they've heard, is thinking that this is going to go through,” he said. “But it will depend on going through several governing bodies [like] the Provost's Council, and then it has to go to Undergraduate Council, and then Senate, so if [any of them] shoot it down, it wouldn't go through.”

Regardless of the decision, both the full-week break and two-day break were going to require noticeable changes to the semester and testing schedule. A number of programs at McMaster, specifically in engineering, have accreditation requirements that require students to be in class for a certain number of hours, meaning that time has to be taken from other areas of the semester.

In order to accommodate a full-week break, three main changes were proposed by the committee and brought forward by Saull. Move-in for Welcome Week would be pushed earlier to the Thursday and Friday before Labour Day, as opposed to the Saturday and Sunday as has been the case in previous years. In addition, the gap day that currently exists as a buffer between final classes and the exam term would be dissolved, and the time allotted for exams would be shortened from three hours to two and a half, or even two hours.

As Saull explained, these changes are a result of a late Labour Day in 2015; therefore, even a two-day break would still necessitate some combination of the proposed changes for a full week break.

“Next year, any break would be different from this year because of the schedule. The calendar is different next year, as Labour Day and Christmas are closer together.”

Based on the discussions at the SRA meeting, students were also concerned with the impact that an entire week off would have on the schedule of midterms. Concerns largely focused on mental health for students, but it was agreed that a full week off was a more effective break. One benefit is that it allows long-distance and first-year students a good opportunity to be able to go home.

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