Student dons play a supportive role in residence life

Residence dons are “just down the hall”

Dons in trainingby Elizabeth Kagedan

As a current student, I can keenly remember my university start. In addition to entering an entirely new kind of school, and adjusting to a new (huge!) group of people, beginning university meant moving into residence, which brought a lot of important non-academic “firsts.”

My residence experience was typical U of T in that it was atypical. I have Type One Diabetes, which meant living on my own brought a whole slew of issues in addition to the regular ones. I had to have access to a fridge to store my insulin, supplies for when my blood sugar went low, and people who knew what to do in case of an emergency. In addition, I’ve always depended on my parents for all kinds of support. I had never fully managed my own budget, or done little things like bleaching clothes and making my own doctor’s appointments. Emotionally, my mother was the first person I would go to if I was stressed about school, or needed advice on just about anything. Though thanks to technology, parents are often just a phone or Skype call away, I was scared to lose that immediate connection.

Fortunately, U of T residences are well-prepared to aid in the adjustment process. Frosh week equips students with lots of information via programming and mentorship, as well as a strong sense of community. Then, residence dons, otherwise known as residence advisors, act in a whole number of capacities to smooth the transition. Depending on the college, dons are either graduate students or senior undergraduate students, so they understand first-hand the issues students are dealing with. As such, they are students’ peers, but with additional wisdom and experience.

I received much support and guidance from my don in first year. I was able to explain the important aspects of my condition to him, and it was good to know at least one person understood what to do in case of emergency right from the start. Fortunately, I didn’t have any emergencies in my first year, but I know my don certainly would have been on hand to help out. This is a crucial part of their job, whether it means talking you through a tough time, taking you to the hospital, or just taking care of you when you need it.

Since we still know each other today, I approached my former don, Dan Cantiller, for help with this article (see, he’s still helping me all these years later.) Though everyone’s donning style is different, Dan saw his role as “primarily there for the students, helping them connect to each other and the university.” He stressed that the relationship is one of peers. “It’s definitely not like, I’m an authority, you’re my minions,” jokes Dan, who sees himself as more of a “sounding board” who works with students to come up with solutions.

Dons also act as an approachable first-point person for any problems students may run into at school. Dons receive extensive training, and are very familiar with the academic services, rights, and responsibilities at their college and at U of T. As a result, they can advise students on the best course of action in a given situation, or refer them to the appropriate service on campus for what they’re dealing with.

U of T has a truly incredible number of services, which is both fantastic and overwhelming. In my first year, between the introductory courses I was taking, my college, and the faculties I was interested in, I had two writing centres and four registrars available to me. In this area, dons are a major asset; as they are senior students, they’ve had to navigate the system themselves, and can help students do the same.

Since dons are chosen for being successful senior students, they are often involved in many aspects of campus life and familiar with U of T’s clubs and channels for finding clubs. As such, they can be excellent mentors, motivating students to be successful and involved, and providing them the means to do so.

Of course, dons are also responsible for establishing and maintaining community standards. In this aspect, their job description really varies from college to college, as each college has different guidelines. What doesn’t change, though, is that their purpose is to help students. This means that when they are enforcing rules, they’re doing so for the benefit of students, to engender a safe and comfortable environment for everyone. For example, they may have to deal with residents who are being unreasonably loud during a designated quiet period, but it’s not arbitrary—they want to make sure other students are able to study or get some sleep. Across the board, dons will be happy to discuss any such measures, as they treat students as adults.

Residence dons are a great resource, and most of the time they’re just down the hall, so whatever a student may need, they shouldn’t hesitate to knock on their don’s door.

When she wrote this story, Elizabeth Kagedan was a fourth-year, Economics and Political Science Joint Specialist. She was also a Communications Intern for U of T's Office of Student Life and a blogger for the student-written blog UpbeaT.