David Johnson and Carol Donnelly are longtime volunteer tutors at VIU Cowichan who love helping students and being a part of the University community. (Vancouver Island University photo)

Demand for tutors on the rise, VIU seeking volunteers

“When you see them get it, that just makes it all worth it”

By Jenn McGarrigle

As a volunteer tutor at Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan Campus, David Johnson enjoys interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds, and breaking down complex math concepts into small steps.

“When you see them get it, that just makes it all worth it,” he says. “It’s really rewarding when they realize they don’t need to solve the secret of the universe — you start with adding two numbers together. I also do it for me, just to keep my brain going. You’ve got to use it or lose it.”

Johnson, a retired Canadian Air Force pilot, has been tutoring math students at VIU Cowichan since 1999. He loves hearing their stories and helping them get where they want to go. He understands how life can get in the way of an education sometimes — he earned his Bachelor of Science degree through night school courses in his 40s — and he’s glad to help others realize their goals.

“You sort of become a grandfather or grandmother figure to some of them,” he says. “I know how hard some of them have to work. One lady I’m tutoring works all day and then meets with me at night. I’m amazed at the adversity some of the students face in their personal lives, and they still make it to school.”

For Carol Donnelly, who has been a volunteer tutor at VIU Cowichan since 2002, it’s a chance to keep enjoying the university environment after retirement. Donnelly taught at post-secondary institutions in Ontario and Edmonton, as well as in Africa. When she retired, she started taking courses at VIU Cowichan and learned about the volunteer tutor program.

“I just love the interactions with the students,” says Donnelly. “They are all so interesting. I’ve tutored young people, old people, middle-aged people. It’s really rewarding when you’re able to help them get ahead. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Donnelly, who tutors students in English, criminology and philosophy, has kept in touch with several of her students, and even gone to watch one of her students graduate.

“I enjoy building relationships with the students and hearing their stories,” she says. “You spend a lot of time talking to your students. Some students are really upbeat all the time, and some of them face a lot of personal things.”

Both Johnson and Donnelly also enjoy being a part of the university community, attending the monthly meetings organized for tutors as well as special workshops hosted at the campus.

Dan Vaillancourt, program coordinator, says the university offers basic training for those without experience, and all tutors are invited to optional monthly meetings — an opportunity to network with other tutors, learn from each other and listen to in-service presentations on the latest teaching techniques.

There are about 30 volunteers in the program at the moment, which is free for students to access, but he is seeking more. Enrolment in literacy and adult basic education (ABE) courses has gone up by 30 per cent due to several factors, including recruitment efforts and the closure of the local school district’s adult learning centre.

“We’ve had a significant increase in international students coming to Cowichan as well,” he adds. “The tutors play an important support role for students who need their services. They help them review course materials, provide suggestions on assignments and brainstorm ideas for essays together. One of the biggest roles the tutors play is in building relationships. A lot of our students lack confidence in their abilities; the tutors provide support, encouragement, positive feedback and direction.”

Vaillancourt looks for life experience rather than professional teaching experience when he is recruiting more tutors. Many of the tutors are retired professionals or other students. He asks for a commitment of 1.5 hours per week, but many of the tutors do more than that.

To get involved, email Vaillancourt at Dan.Vaillancourt@viu.ca or call 250-746-3527.

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