Thilini Leitan: Finding Common Ground

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Thilini Leitan is a fifth-year human geography major who has demonstrated a strong commitment to helping students transition into UBC and build connections on campus. Recently recognized as the 2013 recipient of the Dean’s Outstanding Leader in the UBC Community Award, Thilini discusses what inspires her involvement.

Tell me about your major and minor within the Faculty of Arts. What influenced your choice to pursue these fields of study?

My major is in Human Geography, and my minor is in International Relations. My first year, I was in the Coordinated Arts Program (CAP) Global Citizens stream, and there I got exposure to both the Geography Department as well as the International Relations Department. I definitely see a lot of connections between my major and my minor. Human geography is about the relationships between nature and society, and those relationships also come into play when you are talking about international relations and global politics. They are very connected, and I think that really drew me to having them as my major and my minor.

What were some of the challenges and benefits of being a Residence Coordinator and Residence Advisor?

In my second year, I was a Residence Advisor in Walter Gage Residence. I had just met the requirement to be in the residence; I was turning 19 two weeks before the cut-off, and I’m also very petite, so one of the challenges that I initially faced was being assertive with students. Through the support of my Residence Life Manager and other advisors, I was able to find my own style in being assertive, which I’ve taken with me throughout my time as a Residence Advisor and Coordinator.

In my third year, I was a Residence Advisor in Salish house, and in my fourth year I was a Residence Coordinator in q’ələχən (pronounced cul-le-hon) house, both in Totem Park. One of the things I love about residence and about UBC in general is building community. During my year in Salish, I had a group of 33 girls, and we got to form a very close-knit floor community, I still keep in contact with them. Building that community is something I look back on so fondly, and it’s also something I got to do as a Residence Coordinator with my Residence Advisor team, through planning events and team building.

How did you become involved with UBC orientations Jumpstart and Imagine Day?

During my time as a Residence Advisor in Totem Park, I really enjoyed being able to support and mentor students during their transition into UBC, and so that made me want to get involved with orientations. Participating as an Arts MUG Leader with Imagine Day during my second year allowed me to learn more about all the UBC orientations programs.

Last summer, I was the Residence Life Student Coordinator for Jumpstart, the first-year transition program for new international and Aboriginal students. I got to work with a group of student leaders, help develop community within residence, and plan different events. After Jumpstart, I started working as an Orientation and Transition Coordinator for Imagine Day. In that position, I got to do a lot of recruiting, training, and team-building within orientations leader groups.

Do you have any insights or advice for new students who are struggling to make the transition into the UBC community?

Living in an on-campus residence can help you feel connected because it provides you with a sense of community and a group of friends to share your experiences with, especially if you’re a first-year student. I was a commuter student during my first year, so I didn’t get to have that residence community that some people have, but I was able to find my own community within UBC through my first year CAP program. It was an amazing program that helped to ease my transition into UBC, and it’s something I look back on very fondly.

UBC is so big, in terms of both student population and campus size, so finding your niche and community within UBC is important. Also, take advantage of the resources that UBC provides to support you during your transition, such as peer programs and academic advisors.

Can you tell me about your long-term participation with Girl Guides of Canada? Did it have any influence upon your decision to pursue mentorship positions with Residence Life?

I’ve been involved with Girl Guides of Canada since I was five years old; I’m now 22.  I’ve gone through the program and done a little bit of everything, and I’m very grateful for my experiences. For the past year, I’ve been a Co-District Commissioner, managing a group of about 100 girls and 30 leaders, and I also sit on my area council. I look at my new role as giving back to the program that has helped shape me and make me into the person I am today.

Through Girl Guides, I really have been lucky to have some amazing and incredible mentors, so those relationships and experiences made me want to give back in some way. Being involved in Residence Life allowed me to give back through mentoring, coaching, and supporting students in residence. As a Residence Advisor in Salish, I got to help first-year students transitioning into first-year university, then as a Residence Coordinator, I got to mentor and coach a team of Residence Advisors.

Through my mentoring and coaching, I’ve learned how to deal with challenging situations, I’ve also learned how to coach students through some very difficult situations and personal struggles. I’ve developed coaching, mentoring, and encouragement skills, and learned how to balance these skills with supervision.

How did your experience at Downtown Eastside Community Kitchen with the UBC Community Learning Initiative influence your perspective on volunteering?

At Downtown Eastside Community Kitchen, I got to help create, cook, and serve meals to the residents of the community. We got the chance to talk and interact with a lot of the residents, which was amazing. I think people can often see volunteering as a one-way street, in which your giving back but not necessarily getting anything in return, but I definitely see volunteering as a two-way street. I learned so much from those residents and so many things about the community. We can learn a lot from volunteering and its very rewarding.

Tell me about your Arts Internship with EcoTrek Tours. 

EcoTrek Tours is an environmental company that leads students on tours about environment and sustainability. Because it was a very small organization, I got to work closely with the director of the program and had a wide range of responsibilities. My duties ranged from leading tours to creating partner proposals for development, so I gained a wide array of skills and it helped me learn about the non-profit sector. It also made me realize that I really enjoy working in a team and working with others, and while I enjoy administrative tasks to some extent, I can’t see myself doing solely administrative tasks in a position. I learned both what I want to do, and what I would prefer not to do.

I enjoyed Arts Internship and would definitely recommend it to other students. What I really liked about Arts Internship was the way I could schedule it around my other commitments. It was flexible with my schedule, and it also allowed me to gain those tangible skills within the workforce.

Do you have any specific plans for after graduation this May?

I don’t have any specific plans; I’m excited for what the future holds, but it’s a bit of an unknown for me. One thing I’ve learned from my time at UBC and also the different programs I’ve worked in is that I definitely want to be able to work with children, youth, or students. I have been very lucky to have some amazing supervisors and mentors during my time, so I’d love to be able to give that back in some way.

Written by Shannon O’Rourke
Article published May 24, 2013