Cover Story

Supporting today’s students and future ones

VP Student Affairs Anne Comfort (’86 & ’87) shares how Mount A is working to improve all aspects of student life, not just academics
By: Brent Mazerolle ('90,'92)
Anne Comfort, Vice-President, International and Student Affairs

Q: First off, you and I got our Arts and Education degrees from Mount A at roughly the same times, but somehow never met. Regardless, I believe we have a good mutual friend in Jim Kinnie? 

A: Jim and I had kind of known each other but then in my third year he was my lab partner and got me through Bio when I had to take a science credit. My two best friends in the world, Angy Beatty and Jim Kinnie, are people I met at MtA. It’s just that kind of place. They talk about six degrees of separation. There are not six degrees of separation when you’re Mount Allison alumni. There’s barely two.

Q: It is worth noting you have zero degrees of separation with four other esteemed Mount Allison alumni – your husband Doug and your three children. Can you give us the full rundown on all the Mount A Comforts?

A: Daniel graduated in 2018 and he’s a CPA now. Emilie is Class of 2020 — God love her, she’s one of those pandemic grads but now works for DFO— and Natalie just graduated and is off to UOttawa for law school. And Doug was part of the Class of ’86 and ’98. He got his certificate in engineering which was offered then, but he was still some credits short to get his Bachelor of Science when he joined the RCMP. Years later, he went back and chipped away at it.

Q: That’s a commitment to lifelong education. You know, as an alumnus and father of a current Mount A student, I am often struck by how much more supportive the school is of all aspects of student life. Not that you and I didn’t have wonderful professors who supported us academically, but I don’t recall as much support for students who might be struggling – in any number of ways – as our children would see here in more recent years.

A: I don’t think there was. When you talk about differences, I think it is in a focus on wellness, physical and emotional health. And spiritual care too.

We now have a student social worker on campus to work with students who might not need a counsellor but may be going through things a social worker can help them navigate.

And we certainly in our day wouldn’t have had a mental health/harm reduction educator. Now we have that in an amazing woman named Maggie Brewer. Maggie has developed what we call “The Navigate Team” of students. It’s peer-led support. This Navigate Team are very active on social media, but they also hold outreach booths where they will reach out to students to try to connect with them and have them feel involved with the campus. And they will offer harm reduction events with information around consuming drugs and alcohol and doing that safely – but also offering alternative events if you’re not into the party scene.

Tasia Alexopoulos, Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Co-ordinator
Jade Lister, Sexual Violence Response, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Consultant

We’ve also had two new staff members join us to support the campus community in the area of sexual violence education, response, and prevention. Tasia Alexopoulos started as the new Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Co-ordinator in 2021 and Jade Lister began as the Sexual Violence Response, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Consultant (SVREDIC) this fall. Both have been instrumental in increasing resources and awareness on campus in this important area. With their guidance, we’ve introduced a new policy and procedures as well as resources for survivors including REES (Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors), a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week centralized online reporting and information platform that provides increased options for students, staff, and faculty to report sexual violence.  

We are also working to hire a Black Student Advisor, although you may see a change to reflect the broader need, it is not a brand-new role at Mount Allison, but an important one in student support.

Q: Another striking difference that is good news/bad news is the campus food bank. Maybe the need has grown, maybe Mount A is doing a better job of meeting the need, but I suspect we should have had it long ago.   

A: Yes, we absolutely should have. I don’t know where hungry students went. We have it today though and run it out of our Indigenous centre – which is something else we didn’t have before. Some of the donations come from alumni, some from staff, some from professors.

Q: Hungry students now have somewhere to turn to on campus, but what can you tell us about the Meighen Centre and what it does for an even larger population of vulnerable students?

A: The Meighen Centre is near and dear to my heart. The centre provides accommodations and services to students with disabilities. Today, the Meighen Centre serves about 300 students on the campus. The majority have what I would call “invisible disabilities” such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, or mental health conditions. We’re helping those students to find success here and support. It may have been founded back in ’88 but certainly it looks a lot different today and the supports we are able to offer now are much different.

Ellie Hummel, Multi-faith Chaplain and Spiritual Care Coordinator

Q: One relatively recent hire you have made is a bit surprising, as North Americans increasingly turn their backs on religion. I suspect though Ellie Hummel’s role is more spiritual than religious? If that distinction makes sense.

A: She’s amazing! She is our multi-faith chaplain and spiritual care coordinator. That’s a mouthful, but it takes a lot of words to describe what she does. When we look at Mount A today, a lot of the students are coming from an interfaith background. They come from all faiths or no faith. They need to see themselves here and feel supported in their spirituality, however they define that. Ellie has revived and revamped what spiritual care looks like.

There’s a lot of drop-in activities for students in the chapel. This year she led a welcome ceremony called Pilei Nipi, which is a Mi’kmaw word for “new leaf.” She’s working with Muslim students and Christian students and Jewish students and really pushing us to be better at welcoming students of various faiths. You have your physical health and mental health but there’s a spiritual part of health too.

If alumni could see the chapel now, it’s really beautiful. Ellie has done what she calls “hope flags.” She has taken coloured pieces of fabric and during orientation she has had first year students drop by and write their hopes for the year on them. It is really something to see. It allows a student to ask, “What do I want out of this? Why am I here?”

The first event she hosted was an Iftar (a meal at sundown to break the fast during Ramadan). The students wanted to do it but she really made sure it was organized and they had food. She had a great turnout and it was a really lovely event. I thought this is really telling for our community. The first thing she did was hold an Iftar in the basement of the chapel so our Muslim students could have that special meal. She’s opted not to have a church service on Sunday -- we already have something like 10 Christian churches in Sackville so she refers Christian students to local services.

Q: I suspect, like Ellie Hummel, Connie and William Nevin are spiritual advisors and a whole lot more, but as Mount Allison University works towards truth and reconciliation, it seems a dramatic improvement on the status quo that you now have “Elders-in-Residence” these days.  

A: Imagine! How amazing is that. Indigenous students who are away from home now have access to Elders, but the couple host events for all students and the university community. For instance, they will have a sacred fire outside the tipi that we have on campus. We also have a Sweat Lodge on campus that the Elders helped us build and as we are speaking we are getting ready to have a sweat this week.

Students meet with Mi'kmaw Elders in the Mawita'mkw, Mount Allison's Indigenous gathering space in the Wallace McCain Student Centre

Q: How else are Indigenous peoples being recognized and celebrated?

A: We now offer a minor in Indigenous studies. We also now have three Indigenous faculty members on campus and our wonderful Indigenous Affairs Coordinator Patty Musgrave-Quinn. When we were here as students, we had Indigenous students, but imagine how isolated they must have felt, no place to gather or be who they needed to be. We have the Indigenous centre now and the Mi’kmaw flag flying over the campus every day. When we look at how we reconcile, I think it’s important that Indigenous students can now see themselves in these institutions that are of course pretty colonial. This is how we start to do that.