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28 September 2015

Queen’s University Recognized for Work on Student Wellness


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Dr. Sandra den Otter, Associate Dean at Queen’s School of Graduate Studies


SGS Habitat: Resources to Live Well and Stay Well in Graduate School has won the 2015 CAGS/ETS Award for Excellence and Innovation in Enhancing the Graduate Student Experience.

The Queen’s University program’s comprehensive approach to supporting the wellness and balance challenges faced by its graduate students was cited by the CAGS judges. They pointed to the coherent planning and program evaluation as a model that is both effective and transformative. They were impressed with the program’s ongoing integration of specialists, faculty and students to ensure relevance and helpfulness.

That philosophy is reinforced by Dr. Sandra den Otter, Associate Dean at Queen’s School of Graduate Studies who spearheads the project.

“We need transparency about the challenges that graduate students can experience,” says den Otter. “Graduate life is an exciting time. There are so many opportunities to grow, to develop ideas, to push boundaries and to create new knowledge. But that comes with challenges.” She says student consultation and feedback have been fundamental. It has helped refine a program which includes one-to-one counselling, peer support groups, workshops, dissertation boot camps, online resources, and much more.

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Focus and Balance at Dissertation on the Lake


An example of outside-the-box thinking is a graduate-focussed retreat, Dissertation on the Lake. It is designed to kick-start a disciplined writing process and to foster a community among peers. Fresh air, good food, exercise and like-minded peers have made it a popular tool. Queen’s organizers keep it affordable for students by setting up at a nearby biological station that belongs to the university and through investments from donors and the graduate school.

“There are many things that make a graduate school great,” says Sally Rutherford, CAGS’s executive director. “But high up on that list is the way it supports its students as they push their academic and personal boundaries.”

That is no small feat for a school with more than 4,000 graduate students from 70 countries.

“Graduate students are an integral part of our institutional identity, and we want them to know that they have a community backing them,” says Brenda Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean, Queen’s School of Graduate Studies. “SGS Habitat is a go-to place for resources, information and strategies. These are tools that will last a lifetime.”

Program organizers say they will use the prize money for a graduate challenge. Students will be asked to create podcasts, blog entries, and videos, articles to share ways of staying well and balanced in graduate school.

“It’s a way to keep the conversation going about living well and staying well and to generate ideas with those who know this world best – the students themselves, “ says Dr. den Otter

The annual ETS award is sponsored by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and the Educational Testing Service. It is presented to a CAGS member school in recognition of innovations that enhance graduate student experience and outcomes. It will be presented in October at the CAGS Annual Conference in Calgary.

Want to read more about how the SGS Habitat program works. Here’s an in-depth description (pdf).