Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Steeping Our Community with Conversation

By Paige

Just over a year ago an ambitious student stayed up all night, building a website. The professor of his third-year business course had inspired him in class that week when he shared the belief that anyone could do something and make an impact. David Manuntag registered and purchased the domain name to UniTea.org that night , as his professor’s mantra “just try – at least you’ll know you made an effort to do something that you care about” echoed in his mind.

But what is Uni Tea?

Uni Tea is an initiative that  helps to foster a sense of community on campus by encouraging students, staff, and faculty members to connect with one another through casual one-on-one conversations. Over the past year, David’s movement has inspired more than 100 people to sign up to for tea time chats,  resulting in more than fifty conversations as a result of the program. Each conversation lasts somewhere from 30 to 45 minutes, as participants are encouraged to discuss any and everything. These talks typically begin with an icebreaker and some surface level small talk before advancing into a more meaningful dialogue. As an active participant himself, David’s longest conversation lasted nearly two hours - “I ended up skipping class because we were having such a good talk,” he laughs.

Though his professor’s lecture had inspired David to  make Uni Tea happen, the desire to start the project had actually come from David’s personal feelings of isolation during his first year of university.

“A lot of the time in that first year I was on the outside looking in and that little barrier [of finding people to talk to] kept me from being included in things. And I feel that if I went through something like that, there must be a lot of people that just barely miss that inclusion point. And getting more people involved and included really makes a difference.”

In his personal experience many student groups have barriers to entry, whether they’re restricted by faculty or require a certain number of extracurriculars on one’s resume to join. Uni Tea in contrast, is an opportunity anyone can take part in, whether they’re an undergrad, a graduate student, or even an alumnus ­- “with Uni Tea our intention was to just have something that everyone could participate in, just be any person and have a conversation,” David says. 

 Last fall, Uni Tea competed in the U of A’s Heroes for Health competition, and although they did not win, the concept of community building over a cup of tea did catch the eye of the Dean of Students and the Office of Sustainability.

“David’s project, his whole approach, it’s just so refreshing,” said Dr. Robin Everall, Associate Dean of Students and a psychologist by training. “In fact, David’s ahead of the pack. We’re currently embarking on a project to overhaul and reinvigorate the way we approach student mental health and wellness at the U of A, to break down silos and foster a more supportive community for students to succeed.

“That’s exactly what Uni Tea does so naturally,” she adds. “It’s so wonderful to see that initiative and creativity coming from our students like David.”

To help David’s future efforts, the Dean ofStudents, and the Office of Sustainability have offered special grants to help Uni Tea grow. With the addition of this funding from the University, David foresees the chance to implement some of the suggestions and innovations that have come from speaking with friends, family and interested volunteers.
“From the start everything has been out of my pocket, so our resources have been quite limited. So it’s exciting to see what we’ll be able to do (with funding),” he says. “Our plans for the future are to expand even more, but having that controlled expansion so we can still deliver that quality of engagement, without sacrificing anything.”

Step one of this vision is to pull together a cohesive team of passionate volunteers who care about campus. Because David believes that many of Uni Tea’s participants will join the project to help deal with feelings of isolation, he hopes to establish a training program for the group’s volunteers. David plans to work with the U of A’s student services and the campus Mental Health Centre to make that training program a reality.
Looking into the future, David’s ultimate goal is to stick with his original vision:  to create a sense of community on campus by sharing stories. As David says, “learning from the experiences of other people” is a valuable experience, and one that he hopes you’ll be inspired to do over a simple cup of tea.

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