U of W task force to explore enticing students downtown

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A new task force out of the University of Winnipeg is looking at ways to get students and staff to spend more time downtown — and feel safe doing so — in an effort to renew activity following the onset of COVID-19.

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A new task force out of the University of Winnipeg is looking at ways to get students and staff to spend more time downtown — and feel safe doing so — in an effort to renew activity following the onset of COVID-19.

The campus safety and awareness review committee, made up of a cross-section of faculty, staff and students, plans to hold its first meeting in early 2023.

“The committee will look at areas such as security, safety practices, policies and initiatives, infrastructure, and communication,” according to recent minutes from a university senate meeting.

Geography professor Jino Distasio is leading the initiative.

The self-described urbanist said the pandemic has “upset people’s sense of awareness” and made them uneasy in public spaces, given society has been closeted for significant periods stretching back to March 2020.

The fall term that just wrapped up at U of W was the first of its kind without a mask mandate or stringent public health orders that limit in-person instruction and events since 2019.

“I don’t know that we can underestimate the impact of the pandemic on the psyche of people… I just hope that we can get people back to loving the downtown as a cool, unique experience,” Distasio said.

A spring 2021 survey of more than 600 undergraduate and graduate students about their e-learning experiences at U of W found almost 70 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “I miss being on campus.”

The Strategic Counsel poll, commissioned by the university, found four out of 10 participants struggled with being motivated or concentrating while participating in remote education. At the same time, a similar percentage of participants disclosed they liked the convenience of it.

Distasio noted the intent behind the new committee is to create dialogue, both internally and with community partners, around welcoming people who have been isolated and developed habits of spending excessive time at home back into the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods.

“It was very important for me to have ‘awareness’ in the title. This isn’t a securitization (project),” he said.

Concerns about personal security and perceptions of danger in and around the Portage Avenue campus are longstanding.

A number of serious incidents, including a stabbing death outside the Millenium Library and an event during which a man reportedly swung a machete at students and security personnel at U of W, have made headlines in recent weeks.

Should a student feel unsafe, they can request an escort to a downtown destination from a class or activity on campus via the university’s SafeWalk or SafeRide program.

There were 137 walks and 49 rides completed throughout the entirety of the last academic year unaffected by COVID-19.

The number of walks to date in 2022-23 – 236 – is about double the 2018-19 total, while the number of rides is the same as that year’s overall figure.

“Usage of the program sharply decreased while students were learning remotely during the pandemic, and that usage suddenly increased once we returned,” wrote Caleb Zimmerman, director of university communications, in an email.

U of W has increased promotion of an app that allows community members to make a quick request for a guide, Zimmerman said.

The task force is expected to examine ways to continue spreading the word about such programs and ensure resources meet the university community’s needs.

Distasio said he is particularly interested in how lighting can be used to increase people’s sense of wellbeing and awareness.

The U of W, Downtown BIZ and other stakeholders are collectively working to shed light on what downtown has to offer and changing public perceptions, the professor said.

“It’s not always about fact and evidence; it’s about how people feel,” he added.

“You want anybody who’s coming onto your campus or into the downtown to feel welcomed and to feel like they’re OK, and I think that’s just what we’re trying to do.”

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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Updated on Friday, December 30, 2022 6:37 PM CST: Adds cutline.

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