Volunteer Venture: The Toronto Coffee Group Diaries

September 2003

I was browsing through the AUSU website and I could not help but notice a webpage about AUSU Coffee Groups. “What were these coffee groups all about?”, I wondered, and I contacted a member of the AUSU student council to obtain further information. In response, I found out that coffee groups are informal meetings where AU students can get together in-person at local coffee shops to discuss issues regarding studying at Athabasca University. To my surprise, I also found out that there was no group set up in Toronto, where I am currently residing.

Being new to Athabasca University, and given the isolating nature of distance education, I decided that coordinating a coffee group in Toronto would be the perfect opportunity for me to meet other AU students, so I volunteered to be the contact for a Toronto group. I figured that later on I could probably meet some new students who would be able to help each other by sharing their distance learning experiences.

At this point there were only about five coordinator contact names. A short time later, there it was! My name was listed as one of the two contacts in Ontario. Yikes!

October 2003

I had just finished sending out e-mail questionnaires for the AU students who were interested in participating in the Toronto Coffee Group asking questions such as, “What part of the city are you located in.” I was surprised that so many people decided to reply. I never knew there were so many students studying at AU out here in Toronto!

November 29, 2003 (Meeting #1)

There I was, on a cold rainy Saturday in Toronto, sitting alone at a table in a local coffee shop waiting patiently for four complete strangers to arrive. “What have I gotten myself into?”, I wondered, and before I knew it, three complete strangers sat in front of me. Shivering from the cold outside, we introduced ourselves as we ordered coffee.

Anxiously taking another sip from my cup, I nodded and listening to the students speak. The fist questions were things like: “What program are you in?”, and “Why did you choose Athabasca University?” Interestingly, we found out we are all from different programs (from arts to business to education programs, at both undergraduate and graduate levels), were at different places in our programs (from a first year student like me, to a student who only had one more year to finishing their program), and were studying at Athabasca University for different reasons (from increasing job qualifications, to learning part-time to have more time with family, to learning for interest). Yet, despite our differences, we all had one goal in common: we were all determined to complete our educational pursuits through Athabasca University.

“Did I tell you about the tutor who…?”, continued a student, relating her positive and negative experiences with past tutors. “I guess it all depends on which tutor you are compatible with and your learning style,” I thought, finding some of her experiences to be quite funny. Other topics discussed that day included the dependency on frequent e-mail and phone communication, concerns with text and library loan materials, variations within examination locations and examination fees, previous post-secondary learning experiences, transfer credits and prior learning assessments, study hints/tips and study schedules, etc.

Finding that we all had common issues, I slowly began to feel more comfortable around the group. “Maybe being a part of the coffee group is not so bad after all,” I thought. Likewise, everyone else was feeling comfortable talking to each other, too, wondering where we would have been if it were not for the coordination of AUSU and its website. Talking about the different aspects of the AU and AUSU websites, we learned that there are many sections offering services you might not expect from a distance learning university. For example, we found sections for: purchasing of study-related merchandise, for courses and program descriptions, sections where students could voice concerns about their courses and tutors, and sections where students could update their registration information. “Wow, I didn’t know that,” said one student, in awe upon hearing what the university had to offer.

Just for fun, we also spoke about other issues that were not related to academics. I let out a small chuckle, as we began to talk about garbage disposal and composting in the city. “You never know what you can find in the garbage these days,” commented one of the students. As well, we talked about the city life of Toronto, riding the Toronto transit system (TTC), holiday shopping (since the holidays were around the corner), balancing work and family, possible coffee group field trips within Toronto and future meetings within our coffee group.

Before we knew it, time had passed and it had been two hours. As everyone was getting ready to leave, we all hoped to meet again soon. “Thank you for the Mocha Thingies,” one of the students said as she was leaving to pay her bill. It was a “mocha-riffic” day, indeed!”, I thought as I paid my bill, preparing to leave the warming atmosphere of the cafĂ© to reenter the cold Toronto winter night.

January 24, 2004 (Meeting #2)

So far, so good. The first meeting was a success. With the holiday season now over, I thought that it was time for another meeting and set one up. On Saturday afternoon, out of breath from running down the street, I entered the same coffee shop and looked around for the students who were at the last meeting.
“H:e:lll:o, I haa:vvv:eee a tt..aaa..bbb:llll:eee att:.ttt:hhh:rreee,” I chattered breathlessly said to the waiter at the door, looking around and recognizing some familiar faces, and some new ones at our table as well.

Once again, we discussed issues related to studying at Athabasca University, such as: tutor comments and complaints, examination locations and fees, programs and courses, study tips and schedules, previous educational experiences, aspects of the student union’s website (for example, message boards, student clubs/programs, student mentors, student council and student council elections), etc. Continuing from where we left off the last time, getting reacquainted with the people seemed easy for everyone. As well, the people that were new to the group fit in quickly. I could see that everyone seemed more cheerful as they drank their coffee.

This time we introduced some new topics into the discussion. “Did you know that there are benefits of being an Athabasca University student?”, asked one of the students. She explained how she found the student union (AUSU) to be helpful. “Yes, I found the ‘survival packs’ handy”, replied another student as she showed the rest of the group her new agenda and highlighter. “I found the articles in The Voice to be well written”, said another student. “I got my student card recently and used it for discounts,” yet another replied. “Oh and let’s not forget about our coffee group, that was set in place thanks to the union,” I quipped.

We also spoke about: assertiveness in dealing with tutors, marks/grades in coursework, information for income tax receipts, online versus individualized study courses, online versus in-person coffee group interactions, graduate students’ representation, and the resources and annoyances of studying in public libraries. “I can not believe we have so many things to talk about “, I thought.

AU topics aside, we also talked about non-academic topics such as: politics in the city, the high rental costs in Toronto, grocery shopping versus online grocery shopping, Toronto transit, equal rights in the workplace, and again, future possible coffee group field trips within Toronto and future meetings within our coffee group.

As I finished the last of my cup of coffee, I looked out the window. I could see the sky quickly darkening, as the sun set on the cold winter day. “I hope to see all of you again,” said one member as she got up to leave after our two hours were up. We all knew it was time to follow her and pay our coffee bills. Despite the cold weather, I was impressed at the turnout of the people for this meeting. After all, what better thing to warm the minds of the five AU students on a cold winter day than an informative warm cup of “Mocca Thingies”?

February 2004-March 2004

As much as I tried, I could not get everyone to meet in-person together. Some students wanted to meet on weekends, while other students wanted to meet during the week. Not knowing what to do, I decided to search the internet for an answer. At that point, I thought of perhaps having an online meeting in between our in-person meetings, for everyone in the group to still keep in contact with each other, despite scheduling differences. I hoped to have an online meeting. I realized that I missed a meeting for February, as I was continuously swamped with schoolwork (oh, that’s the life of being an AU student!). “Oh, I don’t know, maybe I’ll have an in-person meeting sometime later this month,” I thought. But then again, maybe I’ll just make a cup of “virtual coffee” for everyone ;).

February 2005

It has been a year since my last contact with the coffee group. Needless to say, due to the hectic schedule of being an AU student, I have decided to pass on the “Toronto Coffee Group coordination cup” to another AU student. Yet, I still continue to look forward to another day at a coffee shop somewhere in Toronto when I shall meet again in-person with other AU students.

Whenever I close my eyes, I can still smell the cup of coffee and think of such unforgettable wonderful memories I have shared with AU students. I have learned the lesson of the coffee cup, indeed: “Distance education is not such a lonely pursuit after all:”

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