Why volunteering means so much to this international student

·4 min read
Joanne Sévère, a third-year Foods and Nutrition student at the University of Prince Edward Island, is trying improve the food environment on campus. (Thinh Nguyen - image credit)
Joanne Sévère, a third-year Foods and Nutrition student at the University of Prince Edward Island, is trying improve the food environment on campus. (Thinh Nguyen - image credit)

It's winter break, but in her room, 21-year-old international student Joanne Sévère is working on a survey she developed about the food environment on the UPEI campus.

The survey includes questions regarding food on campus, such as the buying habits of students and whether they feel the university supports their health and wellness.

It's part of her volunteer work for Meal Exchange, a national charity advocating for student food security at colleges and universities. Sévère is the student ambassador of the charity at UPEI. She also meets virtually every month with ambassadors from other post-secondary institutions across Canada.

"We have network-wide meetings to discuss what other universities have been doing and how we can work together," she said. "One of the goals would be to have the same [food] policies across Canadian universities."

Sévère, a student in the Foods and Nutrition program, came to the Island in 2019 from the east African country of Mauritius. She feels the food environment on the UPEI campus could be healthier.

'Highly processed foods'

"We do have probably four or five or maybe more outlets and vending machines across the campus where it's mostly highly processed foods or high sodium, high sugars — for example, fries, hamburgers, chicken wings," she said.

Submitted by Joanne Sévère
Submitted by Joanne Sévère

This is just one of many volunteer positions she holds.

She is the UPEI representative of Dietitians of Canada, the co-president of UPEI Applied Human Sciences Society and the secretary of the Rotaract Club of UPEI. On top of that, she works part-time as a tutor at the UPEI Writing Centre.

Her passion for volunteering stems from an overseas volunteer trip in 2017 where she joined high schoolers from other countries to help out people living on the streets in Prague.

She prepared and served them food. She talked to them and learned about their lives. And she cannot forget the moment she met with people living in carton boxes under a bridge.

"It opened our eyes to the things that are happening and how we could help others," she said.

"A lot of people do have privileges and we tend to forget those who do not, or those who have challenges in life."

I'm grateful for where I am right now, and I want to help others who don't necessarily have this privilege or this help, wherever I can. — Joanne Sévère

That's one of the reasons Sévère is volunteering at UPEI. Besides building her network, she considers it a privilege to study abroad in Canada and she wants to give back to the community here.

"I'm grateful for where I am right now, and I want to help others who don't necessarily have this privilege or this help, wherever I can."

Volunteering also brings a lot of fun, she said, citing many activities she has helped organize on campus such as pumpkin carving, cooking activities and tree-decorating events.

"It was nice to see how willing students were to come at these events even though it was at night or if it was during the revision period," she said.

"Those who are organizing along with me, my peers, we feel really good about volunteering our time in organizing these events when we see how interested students are into coming."

School comes first

It can be tough to juggle being a full-time student, volunteering and working part-time, so time management and planning is important. But Sévère says she always puts school first,

"I prioritize university, then I shape my days and weeks around my assignment deadlines, midterms and exams."

Back in her room, Sévère is analyzing the data from her survey to prepare for the meeting next month with other Meal Exchange student ambassadors. She has received 165 responses so far, and she is reaching out to more students.

She hopes the volunteer work she's doing with other student ambassadors will make a difference.

"A lot of universities don't have any food policies. But if we work together, also see that there's an opportunity for us to make a change here at UPEI, then maybe this will be a sort of domino effect where all the universities will follow the same sort of idea."

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