UNB News
News and stories from one of Canada’s top universities

UNB graduate wins community award for creating a positive environment for students

Author: Camila Lefebvre

Posted on Jul 10, 2024

Category: UNB Fredericton

Larissa Nazareth

At the beginning of the school year, the University of New Brunswick’s (UNB) Fredericton campus is bursting with activities, the sun is bright above the Student Union Building as students walk from lectures to meal hall, and all over the outdoor green space on campus, people are coming together and connecting.

As winter nears and the temperature drops, so does the buzz of activity on campus. For many new students, the months of indoor time can be difficult to adjust to and often isolating.

Taking care of one’s mental health is vital all year round, especially when the winter months affect one’s support system on campus. Larissa Nazareth (BA’24), a psychology graduate from UNB’s 2024 bachelor of arts degree, went through the experience of declining mental health during the months of reduced sunlight. Becoming involved with UNB’s Positive Mental Health Team (PMHT) allowed her to gain agency over her well-being.

“As an introvert who often finds it challenging to make friends,” said Nazareth, “my involvement with PMHT has allowed me to connect with many wonderful people. These connections and experiences have been invaluable and will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Nazareth transferred from the Canadian University of Dubai to UNB in the third year of her degree. Once here, she enthusiastically joined extracurricular activities to enhance her experience here as a student.

“I tried to make the most of my time at UNB by participating in clubs and events, such as the Menstrual Health Society and volunteering for student union events,” explains Nazareth.

As part of her courses, Nazareth joined the Arts 4000 internship program coordinated by Tabatha Armstrong, student engagement and communications officer and coordinator of UNB’s Arts Internship Program. Nazareth was paired with the PMHT as a program coordinator at counselling services, gaining practical experience implementing evidence-based strategies with events.

Erin Crossland, UNB’s acting director of counselling services, was Nazareth’s supervisor during her internship with PMHT. She explained that the group planned weekly events and one bigger monthly event, collaborating with many departments and organizations under Nazareth’s coordination.

As a result, Nazareth was granted The City of Fredericton Community Recognition Award for her initiative with the PMHT.

The challenge of seasons

Nazareth arrived at the height of fall.

“The UNBF campus is truly so beautiful,” she said. “The fall season is something I had never experienced before, and it made my transition to UNB truly special.”

The combination of an exciting campus energy with a golden landscape impacted Nazareth deeply. However, with the beauty of fall came the chill of winter. Nazareth described experiencing snow for the first time as “magical,” but “adjusting to the cold and snowy conditions was difficult. The harsh winter weather sometimes made getting up and staying productive hard.”

As her lack of motivation progressed into the semester, she noticed it affecting her academic and social life. With this realization, Nazareth acknowledged she was struggling with her mental health and needed to seek support.

“Recognizing the importance of addressing my mental health, I decided to reach out and take advantage of the support services offered on campus,” said Nazareth.

Breaking the cycle

After the meaningful support Nazareth received from the PMHT, she felt she needed to advocate for others in similar situations.

“I think I was involved in mental health advocacy because of my own experiences with mental health challenges,” explained Nazareth. “Having navigated these struggles myself, I [felt] deep empathy for others in similar situations and a strong desire to make a difference.”

Nazareth emphasized the people who made her involvement possible and encouraged her to pursue her passion for mental health support like Armstrong; Crossland; Matt McLean, Betina Agas, Emma Giordano, Isabelle Fletcher and Jhanvi Joshi.

Crossland worked closely with Nazareth, witnessing her flourishing in a coordinator role for the PMHT.

“Larissa was fantastic. She came up with a lot of ideas, and being an international student, she [knew] what people would connect with. I would give her a task, and it would happen,” said Crossland.

The program: fostering a new support system

The main goal for Nazareth as she worked with the PMHT was “to provide all students with a sense of community and the opportunity to explore new hobbies that they might only sometimes get the chance to try due to cost or time constraints.”

Nazareth and her team organized various exciting events on campus, including dog yoga, vinyl paint, macrame making, ice skating with hot chocolate, potting plants and glow yoga. Therapy dog visits occurred in McConnel Hall weekly, generating an attendance range of 55 to 195 students for the event this year.

Crossland supervised a skating session organized by Nazareth where a student, skating for the first time, handed their phone to the supervisor so their parents, on video call, could see their child skate for the first time in their life.

“A good majority of students that attended these events were international students,” said Crossland. “For a lot of them, that was the first time on the ice. I was holding the phone for [a mother] to watch her daughter skate for the very first time.”

Through the facilitated group activities, Nazareth generated a safe and stimulating space for students to connect with each other and with campus resources, including local and national hotlines.

She worked extensively to ensure students had “access to the support they [needed].”

In addition, Nazareth collaborated with Emma Giordano (BSc'24), a recent UNB women’s hockey player and graduate, as well as volunteer with the PMHT, raising funds for the Fredericton Community Kitchen at UNB men's and women's soccer tournaments.

For Nazareth, the community award “signifies that the PMHT’s contribution has not gone unnoticed and that [we] are making a positive difference within the UNB community.”

Further, this program has benefitted all students, but especially international students who found themselves far away from their community support system.

“I am particularly pleased to see its positive impact on international students,” said Nazareth. “[They] have enjoyed trying activities like ice skating for the first time ... All participants find a safe space and a supportive community through our events.”

The overarching goal and purpose of the PMHT according to Crossland is to build a community for students on campus.

“We intentionally try a variety of events to bring people with different interests [together]. We want to help [students] build a community, weaving in other aspects of well-being and positive mental health,” said Crossland.

Expanding the initiative

Although Nazareth’s involvement with the PMHT started simply as advocacy, she says she learned more about herself and developed more empathy for a wide variety of experiences. “It was indeed a path to personal growth and self-improvement,” said Nazareth.

Crossland observed Nazareth growing her confidence as a leader, too.

“Larissa is a more reserved, sweet individual. Being an organizer at an event was outside of her comfort zone. I saw her grow in her confidence and ability to connect with individuals, engage with students, and public speaking at the events,” said Crossland.

This experience allowed Nazareth to reconfirm her vocation for a career in mental health advocacy. She has plans to stay in Fredericton, eventually pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

“I look forward to finding a role where I can contribute positively to the community. My career aspiration is to work with populations struggling with mental health. I am excited about the prospects ahead and am hopeful I will find the right opportunity soon.”

As for the PMHT, Crossland hopes that the Fredericton Community Recognition Award Nazareth earned will create more awareness of the program and its events on campus.

“I hope it builds connections beyond our campus. Hopefully, we can gain some community partners or learn different ways we can collaborate outside of our campus and UNB community.”

For more information on the exciting events being organized by the PMHT this fall, see their Instagram and Facebook.