Stress, anxiety and loneliness are among the many challenges that university students face during this era of remote learning and physical distancing. In past years, Inter-Mennonite Chaplaincy Association (IMCA) operated a welcoming space known as the Menno Office on the University of Manitoba campus. It was a place where students from various backgrounds and academic programs gathered to enjoy food, music, spiritual guidance and a sense of belonging among friends and mentors.
Although Mark von Kampen, the Inter-Mennonite chaplain, can’t meet with students this year in a physical space due to COVID-19 restrictions, he is facilitating a vibrant and enthusiastic online community through the E-Menno Office on the Discord platform.
“It is a privilege to journey alongside students in these challenging times,” says von Kampen. “Some of the common challenges I’ve heard from students are feelings of isolation and yearning for connection and interaction.
“Coupled with this, a number of students have talked about a lack of motivation that seems to come from not being able to interact with peers the way they would when physically on campus. I can also sense anxiety about economic realities and job opportunities post-COVID-19.”
The E-Menno Office offers a safe space for students to interact via voice-chat channels in group discussions, to arrange one-on-one chats with von Kampen and to join “Menno Talk” and other scheduled group discussions. In addition to services provided on Discord, von Kampen also supports students through email, phone calls and texting.
This has been a year of challenges and adjustments for von Kampen and other chaplains who had offices in the University Centre. In early March these offices sustained extensive damage from a fire. A few days later COVID-19 pandemic restrictions made it impossible for students to be together in the same physical location.
The Inter-Mennonite chaplaincy has produced a four-minute video that uses photographs and video footage of activities in the Menno Office before the fire. IMCA has also created a website that provides a link to the video and easy access to the E-Menno office. See mennooffice.ca.
“The Menno Office, whether physical or virtual, is a unique expression of the church reaching into the everyday lives of students,” says von Kampen. “Young adulthood is a pivotal time in their lives when they are making important decisions about relationships, vocational choices and life directions and priorities. The Menno Office is a tangible reminder that the church cares about them and ultimately that God cares about them.”