How Mohawk researchers helped improve the wellbeing of students in the Academic Upgrading program

Picture of downtown Hamilton at night


To help improve the experience of students enrolled in Mohawk’s Access programs, which support marginalized and vulnerable populations, researchers designed and piloted Wellness Connection, a peer mentoring program focusing on individual mental health and wellness needs. 


Funder: IDEAWORKS Catalyst Fund (Formerly known as ARIE)
Research Team: Lisa Alfano, Cheryl Richesin, and Sara Ali

Future Ready Challenge

Research has shown that education and training improves social mobility, jobs and incomes, and health outcomes. Although Ontario has one of the highest rates of postsecondary education completion in Canada, with nearly 70% continuing beyond high school, there are still vulnerable populations who face multiple and disproportionate barriers to accessing postsecondary and training opportunities, including mental and physical health issues, poverty, addiction, and effects from past trauma. 

Mohawk’s Access programs offer tuition-free credit and non-credit courses supporting equitable pathways to education and training. At present, Access students attend tuition-free classes and thereby have limited access to the college’s counselling services. However, participants in these programs frequently face pressing non-academic and mental health needs, and this lack of access to continuous specialized and individualized wellness assistance limits opportunities to succeed academically and transition to further study and/or employment.

Research Overview

To address this challenge for students in Mohawk’s Access programs, researchers in Mohawk’s Academic Upgrading program collaborated with the Mohawk Counselling Department to broaden wellness supports for Access students. The Mohawk research team wanted to discover if participation in a peer wellness program as part of the Academic Upgrading Program would increase retention and graduation rates. They also wanted to explore how students perceived the program’s effectiveness and its influence on motivation and perseverance. 

The Wellness Connection peer-mentoring program was designed to include student Peer Mentor delivered workshops and one-on-one sessions, and provided referrals to specialized services. The Peer Mentor had lived experience both as a successful graduate of the Academic Upgrading program and as a Mohawk postsecondary student.  

Innovative Results

Students reported that the Wellness Connection program helped them reach their academic goals, increased their motivation, confidence and focus, provided support for personal and family challenges, and helped them form positive connections. 

Infographic that shows the AGE Demographic of the Program, the gender of the respondents, Incentive, types of workshops created, 1:1 peer mentoring and group sessions. Also highlights the 22% increase in confidents, the 19% increase academic focus, the 16% increase in coping skills, the 15% reduction in stress and the 13% increased support for personal and family challenges.

“I’m a lot more motivated to come to school. I’m more motivated to succeed. Just having someone there made it better,” says one student research participant, while another shared, “I suffer from anxiety and depression. The Wellness Connection in AU gave me a purpose and sense of belonging that I didn’t have before. It just may have saved my life.” 


The results of the Wellness Connection research highlighted the importance of creating a more stable, sustainable and consistent long-term support system aligned to the Access programs. Building on the success of the pilot program, in May 2020, the research team received over $350,000 in funding from NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) for a College and Community Social Innovation Fund Grant to develop a sustainable and socially innovative support system tailored to the individual needs of Access students. This will involve a research partnership between Mohawk College and community organizations and will extend the peer mentoring initiative to Mohawk’s City School and LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) programs.