As a one-time international student himself, Theon O’Connor knows full well the challenges faced by many newcomer students – an insider knowledge that makes him uniquely qualified for his new role as Director of Student & Registrarial Services at Yorkville University’s Ontario Campus.
“It’s one of the reasons I thought this role was a really good one for me – because I understand what it’s like to leave home and go to a new country, where, ultimately, you don’t know anyone, or how things work, or what kind of services are there for you,” he said.
“There are many things that you don’t necessarily think about as a person who lives here, that drastically impact international students. Since I’ve been there, I can put myself in their shoes and even be able to relate to some of them when they come into my office and they’re breaking down in tears because they miss their family back home, but they know their family is counting on them to achieve their dreams.”
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, O’Connor moved to Washington, DC to attend Georgetown University on a track and field scholarship after graduating high school. He went on to become a two-time NCAA qualifier, competing in the 400- and 800-metre track events, while also completing his four-year undergraduate degree in Government (Political Science).
From there, he went on to pursue his Master’s degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications, also at Georgetown, while also working at the university in a Student Life/Government Relations/Community Engagement capacity.
“I was dealing with students who lived off campus – ensuring they had a great experience, responding to their concerns, and helping them connect to the services and supports that were there for them, both on campus and off campus and in the community,” he said.
After finishing his Master’s studies, O’Connor married his wife and the pair relocated in 2017 to Toronto, where he quickly learned about Yorkville University and, soon thereafter, secured a position as Manager of National Regulatory and Government Affairs – a role he served in until 2020.
“When I was making my transition from the U.S. to Canada, I really had no knowledge of what Canadian education was. I’d gone through the education system in Jamaica, which was completely different from the one in the U.S., then worked in the U.S. for almost five years. Then all of a sudden, I found myself coming into another completely new system I knew nothing about,” he said.
“I think what drew me to the role at Yorkville, specifically, was that doing Regulatory Affairs would give me the opportunity to continue the government relations work I’d been doing, but also help me to learn a lot about education in Canada, because I had to learn a lot really quickly, and I found it really fascinating.”
Since joining Yorkville, O’Connor has earned two promotions – the first in November 2020, when he was promoted into an Associate Director position, and the second last October, when he was tasked with taking on an entirely new role as Director of Student & Registrarial Services at Yorkville’s Ontario Campus.
Now just five months into his new duties, O’Connor said he’s happy to return back to a more student-focused role, where his responsibilities center around the student experience and student success
“Right now, I oversee Student Life, I oversee Student Services, and I have a big role in Registrarial Services – and it’s all aimed at ensuring students have the best experience while they are here at Yorkville,” he said.
“Ultimately, everything I do is really geared toward ensuring that students have a great experience – that we are responding to student enquiries, either via the ticket system or in person or via email, as well as ensuring that students enjoy themselves with Student Life activities, as well as students are developing in the best possible way to be productive members of society.”
O’Connor’s new role is one he’s now even better prepared to take on since earning his Doctor of Education in Educational and Community Leadership from Western University back in 2021. His studies, he said, delved into ways in which to increase international student retention by improving organizational structure and culture in the hope of supporting international student success.
“I focused on Yorkville, specifically, looking at our international students and their various needs. There’s no institution that’s going to be able to satisfy every single need, but there are certain things that you don’t normally think about,” he said, noting that he’s integrated many of the ideas presented in his dissertation into his new role.
“I’m looking at things like our orientation – what it looks like and how can we improve it to meet the needs of our international students prior to them coming to Canada, because, oftentimes, trying to focus on helping them while they’re here isn’t enough. We need to look at everything from helping them navigate arrival, to finding a place to live, to settling in once they arrive.”
It also means helping international students navigate all the services available to them on campus, including: Mental Health & Wellness, Career Services, Tutoring, Accessibility & Accommodations, and Library Services, to name a few.
“Mental Health and Wellness is a big one, because we know that a lot of our students are international students, and coming to a new country, there’s a lot of angst and anxiety,” O’Connor explained.
“A lot of them are dealing with issues of loneliness and home sickness and depression, so we’re trying our best to connect them with mental health and wellness services.”
Career Services are likewise important, because many of Yorkville’s international students would like to stay in Canada after graduating and need to secure a job in order to do so, as are tutoring services, because many of our international students are coming from completely different education systems and need help navigating upon their arrival here.
“Ultimately, it’s my job to ensure that our standard of support is always increasing – that, when we take a look in the mirror, we’re happy with what we’ve done to impact our students, and that our students look back at the support they received from Yorkville and remember it as exceptional,” he said.
“We want them to feel as though their time with us wasn’t just about getting their degree, but that they actually feel a connection to us and want to give back to the Yorkville community – whether that be by giving their time as mentors or as promoters of Yorkville to prospective students.”
O’Connor said he’s so motivated to be successful in his new role, because the student experience and student development is where his true passion lies.
“I am very driven to assure that we ensure that our students get the best services, get the best support, and that we’re very receptive and responsive to whatever complaints students may have, because ultimately, that’s what’s important,” he said.
“Ensuring that our students have the best possible experience is the most important part of what we do, because without students, there is no school.”