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Western University to keep close eye on safety-inspired ‘OWeek’ changes

A student walks towards the Western University campus in London, Ont., on September 15, 2021. Nicole Osborne / The Canadian Press

It’ll be a different Orientation Week than usual at Western University come Monday, and officials say they’ll be keeping a close eye on numerous changes made to improve student safety and well-being.

The changes to ‘OWeek’ are one of several actions undertaken in the wake of numerous sexual assault allegations stemming from incidents reported to have taken place during 2021’s OWeek.

One of the most notable reactions to the allegations was a roughly 9,000-student walkout to protest what organizers called “a culture of misogyny.”

Western also developed its own Gender-Based and Sexual Violence Action Committee, which has called on the university to re-evaluate OWeek activities, along with a number of other recommendations which have inspired the changes that have since been implemented.

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Most recently, student leaders from across Canada issued a 10-step plan for ensuring campus safety.

Click to play video: 'Student leaders release action plan to tackle campus sexual violence'
Student leaders release action plan to tackle campus sexual violence

This year’s OWeek will see the removal of nicknames for sophs, a term that refers to student leaders tasked with leading first-years through orientation-related events. Western has described soph nicknames as often “sexually charged.”

Event schedules have been adjusted to prioritize healthy sleeping habits and faculty members will have an increased level of involvement.

Western has also created a series of Care Hubs, which will provide students with “wayfinding, nourishment and support.” These hubs will be staffed by “those with experience providing mental health support, as well as student volunteers.”

“We’ll be tracking a lot of these initiatives to see how they play out,” said John Doerksen, Western’s vice-provost of students.

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Doerksen says a lot of the programming scheduled for next week will focus on establishing social connections between first-year students, most of whom would’ve just finished a high school experience that was largely dominated by online learning.

He added that sophs and other student leaders involved in OWeek activities are “going to be better prepared” thanks to a wide range of training focused on gender-based and sexual violence, equity, diversity and inclusion, and mental health.

Those just arriving at Western are also receiving their own training.

“Every incoming first-year student has already taken an online module around consent. That’s related to gender-based and sexual violence and how to interact in relationships in a respectful and inclusive way,” Doerksen added.

“In our community, we’re going to do whatever we can to make gender-based and sexual violence a thing of the past.”

Nicholas Salgado, one of the thousands of first-year students who underwent the new training, says he hopes it makes a difference.

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“I like that they’re addressing the issue, it’s a good place to start,” he said.

Fellow first-year student Rowan Pereira says he was pleasantly surprised by the training, which he described as an in-depth online module followed by a 90-minute Zoom meeting.

“I thought at the start it was going to be more of a gimmick, but they actually put you through proper training … it’s more thorough than I expected because normally you see these kind of blanketed trainings,” Pereira said.

“I think hopefully it will make a change because the people that I’ve talked to around the campus already seem more conscious about it and just aware that there could be an issue.”

More than 5,000 students are set to move into on-campus residences this weekend. After that OWeek kicks off on Monday before drawing to a close on Sept. 11.

Click to play video: 'Western University to require vaccinations and masking, says updated COVID-19 policy'
Western University to require vaccinations and masking, says updated COVID-19 policy

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