Come the fall 2016 term, University of Manitoba students will enjoy an extra pair of days off over the Thanksgiving long weekend.
The University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) announced what it is calling a fall reading week following near unanimous approval from the school’s senate at its regular meeting Nov. 4. Under the approved structure, students will receive the Thursday and Friday prior to the holiday weekend off, giving them a total five-day recess from classes.
“It’s only a marginal addition, in terms of days off, but we believe that any additional time around the really stressful mid-term season will […] really help [students’] mental health and wellness,” said UMSU president Jeremiah Kopp.
A 2013 National College Health Assessment surveyed 561 U of M students and found more than 31 per cent of respondents experienced a level of stress they worried would negatively affect their academic performance, while 23 per cent experienced anxiety, 21 per cent had difficulty sleeping, and 12 per cent suffered from depression.
While Kopp admitted an extra-long weekend likely wouldn’t alleviate every student’s symptoms, he said it’s a step toward a greater understanding of, and sensitivity toward, mental health and wellness issues from the university’s leadership.
“That’s what we’re really celebrating here,” he said. “It’s not just an additional couple of days, for a total of five – what we’re celebrating is a signal to academia that there needs to be structural changes.”
Currently, 12 days are set aside for exams in the fall period, with tests scheduled on only 10. Beginning next school year, the two unused days will be used to make way for the additional time off, noted Kopp. Classes won’t begin any earlier in the fall or run any later at the end of the year, he said.
While nearly all faculties of the Fort Garry campus opted into the schedule, the majority operating on the Bannatyne campus opted out.
David Ness, director of the U of M student counselling centre, said the additional time off will be a good opportunity for students, especially those in the early years of their academic careers, to recharge and reconnect with their support network.
“With that reduction in commitment of scheduled time – you don’t have the same schedule, you don’t have to be somewhere – you can use that time differently,” he said. “Maybe to get more rest, to study more, to take care of self, to travel to visit someone. I think that almost always benefits people to be able to have that freedom to do what they need at that time.”
He acknowledged some students actually use their studies as a distraction to cope with their difficulties and the additional time off could increase their stress load, but noted that they’re the exception to the rule. He urged all students to make the most of the opportunity in whatever way suits them.
“I would encourage students to use that break wisely to take care of themselves in whatever way they need to decrease their stress,” he said. “Whether that is not even looking at a book, or looking at the book more, travelling – what do they need to take care of self, to recharge some energy, so that when they return they can finish the last half of the term before December exams.”
The U of M follows the lead of the University of Winnipeg, which became the first school in the province to adopt a fall reading week when its senate supported the motion in the spring, and a number of universities nation-wide that are also opting for a fall recess.
University of Winnipeg classes will start one day earlier following Labour Day and Saturdays have been added to the fall exam calendar in exchange for the full week off after Thanksgiving.
Peyton Veitch, president of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, said he received overwhelming support for a fall break in a student survey circulated in the spring and noted the school’s acceptance points to the increasing weight given to mental health issues on campus.
“Hopefully,” he said, “this is part of a continuing trend where not only are universities going in the direction of a fall reading week to complement a winter-term reading week, but also signals a greater emphasis on mental health at universities across the country – because it’s critically important.”