Kathryn Hofer, Interviewed by Seonaidh MacLachlan
Kathryn Hofer: Director of Student Experience at the University of Guelph
My name is Seonaidh MacLachlan, and I am interviewing Kathryn Hofer. The head of the Student Experience Department.
So, when the pandemic started, I was in the department of Student Experience, it was actually in the role of interim director. I’m a director now but was interim at the time. I was just coming into the work of doing the director work for the department.
What does an interim director do?
An interim director is an interesting role. Interim means that you're in the role until it's vacant and you're in the role until there's an opportunity for the university to do an official hire for the process. So, for me, as director for the department, we have eight units, at that time we had seven. I'll just give you a quick overview. Our department includes the Indigenous student center, multifaith programs, neighborhood relations and off campus living. Our cultural diversity teams working with Black and racialized students, our sexual and gender diversity team. Student engagement and learning, which includes orientation week programming, transition programs for orientation. Like if you participated in start UofG, snow days and the peer helper program. Transfer student programming is all within that and then graduating programs like gryph to grad and last lecture are part of that. We also, at that time, had had International student experience which includes transition programs and just support and connection programs for International students at UofG. As well as International student advisors, who are regulated professionals who can give immigration advice to students. That's the group that I was working with at the time and since then we've added a global pre arrival support team for International students.
Is there much of a difference between what you were doing then and what you're doing now?
There’s not a huge difference. I was figuring things out more then in terms of my role. I’ve got into this rhythm of it now. There's a lot of learning at the time and of course during COVID, there's a lot of- kind of interesting experiences of adjusting and transitioning and working with our remote team. All those pieces, but the core of the work and our purpose as a department is the same.
So, did the initial shutdown affect you and your department too much?
It did in that any programming that we had planned for the rest of that academic year, like March of 2020 through the end. Really in most cases it was paused, because initially we just thought “OK, we'll cancel a week of programs and we'll be back on campus in just two weeks and then we'll be doing all of those big year end events.” Then it became pretty clear that we weren’t going to be coming back so, it was how can we interact with students in that online environment.
Was there any event in particular that you guys were really excited about?
You know because it was so close to the end of the semester it would probably have been general everyday programming. The one key event that we weren't able to host was the last lecture. So, for our graduating students that didn't happen in the same way.
Are there any major issues that you had to sort out when everything got shut down?
I would say it's interesting from an administrative perspective, but actually everybody having some kind of device at home. I think it's very similar to elementary school or you know the public-school experience. All these students are at home and suddenly you're transitioning to online learning and how do you get devices out to everybody. So, in our department at that time, we still had desktop computers. Most people, 90% of us, had desktop computers and so it was how do we get everybody to ensure they have a device. A lot of people just used their own personal laptops going forward. We had some staff who, if they didn't have a personal device, it was how do we, with the few laptops that we had in the department at the time, allocating them out to different people. That was probably, administratively, that was one of the biggest pieces and now our entire department is on laptops. We have no desktops other than our front desk and everything, that transition just forced it.
So, with the computers and stuff were there any bugs you had to fix, where sometimes it would work and others it wouldn't work?
Yeah, this is really administrative, but there's a lot of pieces in the university system that you need to have the VPN network that the university has for that secure connection. So, our financial reporting system is the biggest one that we couldn't access initially from home, and everybody had to get that download onto their computer at the time. That's where, CCS- I know they were under a lot of stress at the time, but they did a great job of rolling out all those transition pieces of the apps and the instructions there for people to know what they needed to do to get that set up.
So, it was a bit of a gap between when you guys all had to work from home to that point between?
When people actually started coming back to campus did anything change at all?
For us on coming back to campus, we were in an interesting place. As a department, you might have noticed when you walked onto this third floor that it looks newer than some other areas on campus. So, we were scheduled for that summer to have the floor renovation start and we had it set up where we were going to transition people in and out of the office and in different spaces in the office as the renovation was done in phases. So, that renovation of course with COVID would have delays and pauses and construction got held up quite a bit. So, the year that a lot of people did start coming back to campus, last year, our staff didn't come back to campus unless they had programming on campus. The renovation went ahead eventually, and one phase was finished first which gave us one big workroom for hoteling because we still had COVID restrictions in place where we could only have a certain number of people in a space. We had a sheet where people could sign up for a specific day and we prioritize people that do programming on campus for orientation week because we ran an in-person orientation week. We prioritized it for our staff who made all that program and programming and work with the student staff who run it. Our staff was kind of in and out and we didn't return to campus until this past summer in late July. It was an interesting experience for us because we never anticipated that we would be out of the office that long. We had a lot of staff transition during that time so with our newer staff there, we had to put a lot of thought into that return to campus just in terms of folks seeing value in coming to campus and seeing the space because they didn't have a connection to it already. So, they might be used to coming to campus as a newer staff member to do programming but to just be here to do their work, you know, we had to kind of build that up and have the value of being kind, to being able to connect with people in person and really build community within our staff.
You became the head of this department before COVID or like a year before COVID?
So, almost a year before COVID I stepped into that interim role. Then in the spring of the first year of COVID, that's when I officially moved into the director position.
How do you feel you would have reacted differently towards COVID had you been appointed as the shutdown happened?
I don't know initially if I would have reacted differently because that experience of a pandemic was new either way. Yeah, that whole, like I mentioned thought of “oh we'll just be back on campus in a couple of weeks this will pass over and we'll be back.” I think I was fortunate because I have worked in this department since about 2003 so, I have known everyone in the department well. When we did go remote, I wasn't new to the department, and I had relationships with all the staff. I really don't know if I would have done things differently in terms of putting a lot of emphasis on making sure I had one to one connection online with folks each week. I think my role really became kind of that center hub in terms of meeting with folks, knowing what they were doing and then being able to make connections across with people in other units in the department or other work that was happening. We were gathering as a department once a week online altogether and trying to stay connected that way. We had informal coffee chats and social things online but to that interaction that happened in the office when you have different people working in different units who cross paths and see do you want to collaborate on this or I'm working on this initiative. “Oh, you're doing that maybe we can, you know, put our resources together and do some joint programming?” Those things that would have casually happened in the office or just awareness from conversations. I think I played more of a role in ensuring that those connections stayed alive for folks. Yeah, and while we were remote, as we started to see changes in our staffing with that booming job market for folks, we had to do some intentional things. I started hosting sessions every few weeks for staff who were new to the office, since we were working remotely and trying to build community between new employees and meeting them every few weeks. Then it eventually became that over half of our department was new during the pandemic. So, it was an interesting shift and working with all those things.
So, you were still able to create connections with a lot of the people even though it was online?
Having to be intentional about it, but I think we did a pretty good job. We're a social department to begin with because we're all programmers we all work with students; we all have to feed off of that connection and building community and that sense of belonging. So, I think that our team did that with each other. I think people were really- I think during COVID there was that development of a caring for each other in a different way, of recognizing if you know that one employee and they happen to live independently in their apartment and they don't have housemates or family that they're living with. Be able you know- I think people really were intentional about just creating side conversations with them in teams chat or, you know, asking if they just want to have half hour coffee chat together. I think that the caring happened in a different way which was nice to see.
Yeah, were there any new measures that you had to put into place when you came back?
In terms of COVID measures? Thinking about the different COVID measures we- the university was really helpful and I think because our department was under renovation, we had a direct contact with physical resources, who was the lead on the renovation. So, when we were ready to start coming back into the office, the university put the stickers on the floor, this is one way and so on. Everything in the office had a directional route and signs on the door saying “no entry” this door or “entry” that door. Putting a sign on the bathroom to say how many people could be in the bathroom at a time or initially during the first orientation week, we just put a sticky note on the door to say there was someone in the bathroom even though it's a three-stall bathroom. Having to say that there's somebody in there so no one else goes in. There was a lot of that. What we did initially with campus events, having to do that recording of every student who attended an event. If someone tested positive you could trace that if you needed to, you could reach out to that entire group of people that you were connecting with in person. So, even if an event was outdoors, we're trying to keep track of all that to be able to notify, for public health standards. There are some interesting pieces that way. Then having all the supplies at events, I'm sure students got tired of it, but you know having wipes in the first year was a really a big deal. Ensuring you have extra masks there for people and all of that. So, we also generally in the past for orientation events and our events in general, had a little loose RSVP systems on Gryff life where people can say they're coming or not it's kind of like Facebook. Like if there's an event people can say whether they want to show or not, but we had to have a rigid registration system and people checking in and if they hadn't registered. Sometimes having to turn people away because of capacity in spaces or asking people to check in even for those large outdoor events. So yeah, I think- I'm going on a long tangent- when you talk about doing things differently, the first truth and reconciliation day, which was not this past September but the September before what was a National Day of Recognition. We, our Indigenous student center and within the Indigenous initiative's office, ended up planning events with the elders who work with the Indigenous student center. Planning it for Johnston Green and at that time, we still had limits on how many people can be at outdoor events. I remember that we had a limit for that event, but then it became one that a lot of people wanted to go to if they were walking by. We well surpassed the limit, but there was no enforcement on the number of people outside attending that. So, it's kind of interesting to me with that piece.
Would you say, from your point of view, everyone pretty much adapted quite quickly to the new measures?
I think our staff were keen because they saw the value for students being able to be in person and having experiences. So, I think everybody really was quick in general in terms of, even when you think about vaccines and the adoption of vaccines hesitancy, those things and having to register with the university at that time. Being able to be on campus and having that experience of being notified by HR if someone in the department hadn't submitted their information. I found through that process, when I was in a place where I needed to reach out to a staff member to say, “OK you haven't submitted that information to the university so you actually can't be on campus until you can.” It was always a case of “oh I have it I just didn't realize.” So, we had a really good response that way in our department from folks for whatever their personal reasons were. It allowed them to be on campus and interact with students in full so that's great yeah.
Do you think because you were already social department that it was much easier for you than it would be for other departments to adapt or is it sort of different in a way?
I think in that connection yes and in maintaining staff connections. I think there were a lot of challenges for folks individually in that because we're social to not have that interaction with people every day. To be to be working at home and working on an initiative in isolation in a sense was different for people. I think just like probably in any position in the community, we definitely- I think would have people who would say it was a challenging experience for them. It was harder, they had to be intentional about going outside or you know being able to connect with someone for a walk or something. So yeah, outside of just the work environment everybody kind of experienced it in a different way.
What would you say, like personally for you, was the most challenging part of the pandemic?
That's a really good question because now, looking back, there’s probably different things I would have said along the way. Looking back over our team and what was the most challenging, I would say that in the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot more thought. I think discussion amongst people about how to intentionally have social interactions or you know within our department or different communities making those opportunities for getting together for an online game or online conversation After that I think next summer when people got outside more and did do their own thing. I think it was harder the following year. I would say that I didn't realize it at the time, but I spent way too much time alone in my house because my partner is a teacher and had returned to work. So, each day, I was alone in my house doing work. I did become a jogging pant person who, you know, wears your professional work clothes on the top half and pants on the bottom half the entire time. So, I think I did alright in terms of my family and connections and support systems and in terms of mental health. I probably was not, like my mental health and my well-being and my making connections, was not as strong in that second year as it was in the first year. You know just kind of finding a rhythm that maybe wasn't the healthiest of what I was doing.
So, did you find your family really helped you as a support system then?
Yeah, because my family is not local in Guelph and we're a family that's very connected in terms of all the grandkids' birthdays. Getting together for those events and we continue to do it and that first- I think it was first Christmas-to not have a Christmas gathering for their family was a big deal. We went and did the garage visit with my kids and that kind of thing. So, I think for sure my family was a big support and I think being in a job where you did have the opportunity to connect with so many people during the work week, I think was helpful. That's what I found, the social aspect of everything is just becoming a bit more complicated.
Would you say your relationship with your job has changed at all since the pandemic or is it more so the same?
It has in a lot of ways. I think in it for me and for other staff in the department, just in the way we function and plan our programming. There are all the aspects of offering so many hybrid events and having the option of having speakers or key events where you have a keynote speaker, and it can be online. Doing things differently that way and maneuvering that and trying to find the right balance for students. I think there are so many things that we do differently again from an administrative perspective, where financial paperwork and submission of days off and things like that. I would always have a file folder outside my office “so can you sign for this person's expense claim?” and doing all of that online now is a time saver. It's a paper saver. Like all those aspects, when- this is interesting because we were out of the office so long. We had during the pandemic, when the renovation was starting, we were assigned days to come into the office and pack up our spaces. You know, we put out all the shredding bins and all the garbage bins so people can get rid of things they didn't need, but people packed up a lot of paper. I think we still didn't have that awareness that we were moving well beyond paper and when we came back to the office and people unpacked, I think we had filled more shredding bins and had more waste when we unpacked than we did when we initially packed. It was a real awareness of we really don't need this anymore. We really like these kinds of files and all these programming documents. We've recreated them all and they're all online in the cloud for UofG and so we don't need any of that. So, it really- when we moved into our new office spaces- just like, we just got rid of a ton of filing cabinets and all those things. It was an interesting experience that way.
Would you say the online format is almost easier than when it was all paper copy?
Oh, for sure and like OneDrive or those aspects where you can co-edit the document; the university had all those systems in place before COVID but we hadn't really fully adopted as a department. So, we now have all of our files saved online either in OneDrive or in teams channels and I'm now in a position where I can essentially access any document that staff members are working on it anytime. So, if someone's away and I get a question about something I can go and access it online and before if someone was away, I didn't have access to the information. I just was without it. There's a whole open information sharing and understanding that more than one person has access to what you're working on. It has been welcomed. I think if we made that transition in the office and said “OK you have to transition and now everybody has this Open Access” I think we would have had more pushback because we were online, and it was the pandemic that led us to use those new systems. People just kind of went with it and no one pushed back. I think it’s something that would have gone a lot differently if we’d been in person trying to adopt some of those systems. So, that was a benefit of the pandemic, that was a big change of management benefit.
Was there anything else that you enjoyed about the pandemic or that you found beneficial when you returned?
In terms of just life in general, the things I enjoyed about the pandemic is the slower nature. I think that was helpful for people and coming back to the office. I have mixed feelings about remote like hybrid meetings. We as a department have decided that there are certain meetings that we will have that will only be in person and if you can't make it's OK but we're not going to flip it to hybrid. Just if you're not able to make it doesn't have that value of focusing on in person interactions. So yeah, it's got some mixed feelings there, but then you have the value of someone being unwell where they're not so unwell that they need to take a sick day and previously they might have tried to come in the office for a day or so and you've been that person with a sniffle or cough and everybody's looking at them like “should you really be here?” Now people, if they feel like they don't need to take a sick day they can still work and be productive and participate in meetings and get things done. So, I think it allows people to kind of find that balance and choose for them and keep everybody in a comfortable environment in terms of fixing and in terms of health. Our standards around what is OK and isn't OK in terms of being healthier and healthier in the office are totally changed.
Were you excited to come back like in person for when you did?
Oh, I was so keen to come back. The university put in the policy initially that as a staff member you could have three days remote and then they, when we returned to campus, shift it to two days. We were asked in student affairs, so all the departments across student affairs, the directors were asked when we were coming back and had the ability to be in the office. To just be here all the time to role model being in the office for staff. I did try a couple of times to, you know, do a half day on campus and half day at home and I would say that since I've been back fully in August, I've taken maybe five full remote days in total. Although I live in Guelph, I don't enjoy the back and forth and having to figure out what files I have in paper that I need to take home or taking my laptop back and forth. So, I do really like being on campus and seeing people and yeah being able to make those casual connections.
Student experience, they have those like Peer helpers and stuff, were they still able to work?
So, we have the coordination of the peer helper program in our office, and we have a ton of peers and student experience, but they are across campus in different units that we work with. It depended on the unit and what their work was. We didn't want to carry students and roles if it wasn't fulfilling, but a lot of units did keep their peers. What we heard from peers was that it was an important connection for them during the pandemic when everything was still remote. That they still felt more connected to the university and particularly for new peers who are coming on and the same for our student staff. We have a lot of student staff positions; we had several positions where we just didn't have the work to offer something that would be fulfilling to students. The students that we were able to keep felt much more connected to campus and the UofG community by having that position.
You said that you guys deal a lot with like helping or you used to deal a lot with helping students from other countries like immigrate and get into their program. So, how was dealing with that because I know once residence and that closed down, did they have extra time or did you guys help coordinate their travel back home?
Yeah so, most students were able to stay in residence until they were able to get flights back. The more I think- and we didn't really coordinate that our International student advisors do the communication of like you're allowed to leave. When the pandemic started you couldn't leave the country when classes went online. You don't have to be here, to kind of confirm uncertainties about “will I lose my eligibility for my study permit, or will I lose the eligibility for a postgraduate work permit if I leave the country?” So, there was a lot of advising on that. Our International student advisors could talk for hours about all the changes that the division within. The federal government of immigration refugee citizenship Canada, IIRC, they made like 15 years' worth of changes in like 2 years, in terms of the language of pivoting. Constantly changing and you know extending the ability to be an International student and have a study permit for Canada. To be out of country because you can't leave the country part way through a semester typically, you can't take leaves of absence, you can't just take a semester off. So, up there were a lot of policy changes around that our ISA’s really needed to communicate with students. I would say during the pandemic we, in our department, took on the position and the work of the quarantine. It initially was compliance or was mandatory and then became compliance so that when students, International students, were allowed to come back into the country to study, the federal government had mandatory quarantine in place. So, we actually coordinated that through our office. We introduced a new position, and that staff member was all about the coordination with residents, if residence was available with hotels, if we were looking at hotels. The Wellness checks that students were having so if they were coming and they were living in east for that quarantine period, ensuring that they were having a teams chats each day with someone or having the opportunity for some social activities online. Doing those Wellness checks and then working with IRCC occasionally when they did do some inspections of campus and would look for a specific individual and ensured that they were quarantining so working with all of that.
So, you weren't necessarily coordinating it but you were kind of like the transition point between?
Yeah so, we were coordinating it in the sense that students had to submit quarantine plan. So, part of the government requirement was that they had to submit quarantine plans if you were coming into the country and so we were the ones who had to receive that quarantine plan. Taking a step back, in Canada if you're an institution that's permitted to have International students, you're called the designated learning institute for International students. At DLI and every DLI, when the federal government said “OK we're opening this up students can come back with quarantine programs” we had to submit a proposal to the government to say this is how we're going to operate the quarantine program on our campus and then we had to get approval. So, each institution slowly got approval independently and then from that we could contact International students and say that they could come in. They had to submit their quarantine plan to us, we had to review it and ensure finances were covered depending on the student situation and how they were coming in. Coordinating you know their flight time; we coordinated Red Car for students to come in from the airport. So, those elements and then as it loosened up over time, we worked with a private sector company to support the quarantine program off campus because when our residences opened to students again, we couldn't guarantee that we had the rooms for quarantine for students for that for that period. We started working with a private partner that a lot of post-secondary schools did work with, so it shifted. The program really shifted over time and our individual staff member, who we hired to take that role on, is just finishing their contract now. There were still elements over the summer where it transitioned to supporting students in their study permits and how late could they get their study permit and still arrive on campus and be successful because of all the delays. Issuing study permits. So, the work transitioned but it was still there specifically related to the pandemic.
So, all of this had to be done well before they were actually planning on coming?
To get a study permanent? To be on campus now if students hadn't applied for a study permit before last May, their chances of being on campus successfully this fall were really slim to get approval to come. As an institution we actually set a date to say if you're not arriving in Canada by this date with your study permit, then we recommend you arrive in the winter semester or take a delay and arrive next fall because you won't be able to be successful as a student.
So, before the pandemic was it still like a lengthy process?
It was a reasonable timeline that could be predicted. It's always a lengthy process and it's unique to each country, but it was very predictable and once the pandemic began it was completely unpredictable. I’m not even certain of the number of hours that International students have stressed over their ability to get their paperwork and get it approved in a time to be here and continue. We're still seeing now the ripple of pandemic and delays because it is taking so long for students to still get their study permit. So, we right now, the universities' doing recruitment for International students, our global pre arrival team just did a webinar last week for students who have offers of admission can getting their study permit. We're saying the earlier you can make a decision about the institution you're going to, then the better off you are in terms of applying for your study permit and being able to be on campus in time for the fall. I'm not sure how long it will take for that to get back on track for students, but it's still a lot of work on their part to really be exact in some timelines to get to campus.
Do you find the webinars have been really helpful as opposed to doing everything in person or does it more so just depend on what you're doing?
I think for International students webinars have been a thing for quite a while even before the pandemic. I think for domestic students there's a lot of advantages, particularly when students are not on campus to participate. Think about coming in as a first-year student prior to the pandemic, we had weekend sessions throughout the summer where students could come to campus, experience campus and get to participate in transition seminars. Now that happens starting in late June, early July, like the weekly sessions happened online as a webinar. They're recorded so students can access them if they want to. They can participate live if they want to and it's really changed the way we can support transition for students coming on to campus. So, that transition to open style or live events is beneficial in that aspect for students.
Alright I have one more question and it may be a bit of a thinker but if you or your department could do anything differently like either initially at the start of the pandemic or throughout what would it have been?
That's a good question. One thing differently, when I think of in society and the global environment, things that have happened in our world through the pandemic, like when you think about George Floyd's murder and all of the activism that summer. I think our department is very oriented towards social justice, oriented towards learning. Just wanting to be current and where they're at in responding to where students may be and what their needs are and so I think- we just actually finished this strategic plan in learning and development around anti-racism and other aspects is really a key piece of that plan. That ongoing learning as a department is so important to our team and they really value it. As well as learning and development around sexual and gendered violence. There are elements during the pandemic where we were doing some work around gendered and sexual violence and we put a pause on it and we put a pause on working with the consultant because of the pandemic and being remote. I think for our staff that was a huge gap. It's like where I feel there was an element of catch up for a time in terms of being responsive to what stuff we're looking for in learning and well-being and social justice. If I could do it all again, I would just say the pandemic doesn't matter, we're just going to be continuous in all this work. We're not going to put a pause on those things because of the value system of our staff department.
Alright well thank you very much that was quite a good interview. I learned a lot about your department because I actually didn't know much about what Student Experience did beforehand but this was very eye opening.
Look at our website anytime but I'm sure you've probably participated in programming or seen the work that we do and not necessarily connected it with a specific department. Which is a good thing because from our departments perspective we know that students don't see or connect different work with the department so we’ll try to put ourselves out there more from the student perspective of the department and the structure of the university.