Returning to Campus: New Directions

Beth smiling towards the camera in a bright and sunny garden.

Written by Betelehem Gulilat, Content Writer 

Illustrated by Anna Tram, Digital Storyteller

We are two months into the fall semester. Classes have picked up, we are in the heart of midterm season and students are establishing a routine across their academic, work and social lives. Yet similar to last year, this school year is not quite like the rest. After spending the past year and a half at Zoom University, UofT students are returning to campus with mixed emotions from excitement, frustration, joy, anxiousness, more and everything in between. 

Fragments of normalcy can be seen walking through St. George Street, while waiting in line at the bookstore, or finding a seat at the library. But despite this ‘normalcy, we cannot deny the gaps that endured in pre-pandemic student life as much as the ones emerging post-pandemically. recent poll conducted by KPMG surveyed more than a thousand Canadian postsecondary students and discovered that 78 percent of students agree the pandemic has “fundamentally changed” their expectations of their higher education experience.   

A building surrounding with images of a text box, people, classroom, book, food truck, and dumb bell all connected with a dotted line

This brings a new perspective to what students truly need, expect, and want moving forward from their university experience as users. How are UofT students feeling about returning to campus? What was their first day like? What has socializing looked like since the pandemic? What do they hope to see from their respective faculties and the University as a whole?

To gain a better understanding of what returning to campus looks like at this time, I had the privlidge to hear the stories of four UofT students from across different programs and levels of study, who bring a wide array of experiences. By amplifying students’ voices, we hope to spark conversation and highlight the needs of the student community especially during times of change. 

To engage with each of these stories, click on the titles below.   

Finding Community on Campus

Like many students who missed being on campus, Angela* really appreciated the university’s reopening especially as she’s entering her fourth and final year. To her surprise, after being online for over a year, Angela expressed that she feels as though she is relearning what its like to be on campus again. 

“Even though I am in my last year of university, I feel like I’m in first year again.”

For her, going to campus is a big aspect of being a student. Simply sitting in class, walking to campus, seeing students and professors face-to-face was something she appreciated from her campus experience. As a very social person, she found the move to online learning to be difficult, especially when it comes to connecting with professors and classmates. There is an aspect of community Angela finds when being on campus that is important to her. In one of her classes, she remembers connecting with a student who asked a question about an assignment for their course. Afterwards, they exchanged information with one another and Angela at the moment realized how much she missed having in-person classes. There are still a few upsides of virtual learning that Angela will miss. 

A path that leads to the CN tower at a distance with a tree nearby“There is a lot more accomodations…you don’t have to think about how you are going to travel to campus…you can just wake up and go to class… I am going to miss doing things on my own pace.”

The transition to in-person and online however is something Angela couldn’t quickly help but notice during our interview. During the first week of school, she found it unclear of whether her classes were supposed to be in-person or online, and at one point was left to discover the delivery of the course during class.

“The professor posted a zoom link, and I clicked the link, but everyone was in person…it was anxiety-inducing”. 

As professors and students are discovering how to navigate this school year, students like Angela, hopes a more coordinated form of course delivery will be provided to students to help make their return to campus a lot more smoother. 

Challenges of Staying Digitally Connected

As some students have transitioned to in-person classes, other students are continuing to learn synchronously. Daniel* is a physics major and over the last year and a half felt deprived of the experiences that makes his major that much more enjoyable. One example he shared was the use of simulated data instead of real data when conducting experiments which has become part of the changes in the delivery of his courses. 

“You don’t get half of the fun… like when you are trying to be a scientist and fiddling with the tools… I was really looking forward to that coming back.” 

A venn diagram with a profile in each circle hovering over a couchWhen it comes to connection in this virtual day in age, Daniel missed seeing other people face to face. He was not a regular user of social media prior to the pandemic and as result did not use it as a means of forming connections. Once everything moved online, he adapted to this new form of staying connected by using Zoom, Slack and Discord to maintain contact with friends and classmates. However, this was not his ideal way of socializing. 

“I was a face-to-face kind of person before the pandemic. I would actually text people and ask to see them in person, I have zero idea how any of the social media actually works…but at the same time I was off social media for a reason. I am not the person to enjoy that…I had some mental health problems… juxtapose my dislike for social media, and over the summer I found it difficult to maintain social media. Once I got into a spiral of not being online, I felt isolated. So now I am semi-socializing… this is not my ideal way of socializing.”  

Another important aspect of student life Daniel shared was the effect transitioning virtually has had on student clubs, their existence, and student life as a whole. Daniel felt fortunate that the clubs he is involved in were able to withstand the pandemic but empathizes for the clubs that are no longer able to operate for reasons outside of their control.

“A lot of clubs aren’t continuing because they have lost a year of funding, and the change to include first years, in the previous year…that is happening to a lot of clubs…these great student communities will not be able to survive and come back to life which is saddening.”

Daniel sees the loss of these clubs as a loss of opportunities for students to explore their interests, passions, and future career aspirations. Although Daniel is a physics major, he adores writing and is looking to make a career out of his passion and believes he is able to do so because of the opportunity to be involved in clubs of his interest. 

Starting a New Chapter

Similar to Angela, Kelly* was really looking forward to returning to campus but could not help but feel concerned about COVID. As a Masters of Information student, much of her program heavily involves collaboration, and although physical distancing rules are strictly followed across the campus, she understands why students find it challenging to maintain physical distancing in collaborative spaces. Imagine sitting with your group, maintaining physical distance, communicating with masks on, in a room of dozens of other students speaking at once. Could this form of collaboration remain sustainable? Despite these concerns, she still prefers in-person learning if she had to choose. One thing Kelly hopes can be implemented moving forward is the posting of synchronous lecture recordings for each class to maintain flexibility for students.An open book with an airplane flying out of the page

“Nowadays I love that professors are Zoom recording, I can just click on the video and rerun the whole lecture. That is a positive thing we can maintain I hope within in-person classes.”

Kelly shared that there were three phases of her social life that transformed from the start of the pandemic to her return to campus. Last March she lived in a 2-bedroom apartment in the US with her roommate and quickly realized her social life was centered around her and her roommate. With limited in-person interaction, Kelly used social media to stay connected during the pandemic with her friends. The second phase began when she moved back home to China. She was able to experience some sense of normalcy as cases began to decline and was able to meet with her friends in person. After coming to Canada to start her Master’s degree, she noticed the third phase of her social life, which brought novelty. Starting a new degree, in a new country, and ultimately meeting new people.

Adapting to Hybrid Learning

At the start of the semester, many faculties chose to deliver lectures following a hybrid approach. For Emily*, this hybrid approach is taking some time to get used to especially after being entirely online last year for classes, extra-curricular activities, and work. The first class she attended in person felt like a new experience for her. People get to see more than the top half of a body this time and are more spatially aware of their classroom environment. Emily took note of how unlike online lectures where everyone in class can hear the professor at the same volume, in a classroom, without an evenly distributed sound system students closest to the professor get the best sound. Soon Emily will begin in-person collaborative work and has thought about how that may go.  

“I am guessing I have to move my head and body around to make sure I talk to everyone…when you are coming to in-person setting, you are expecting facial feedback…and misinterpret what they want…I know that has happened to me. My friend is looking at me, I don’t know what they are trying to say, and can only see their eyes, and hope to interpret it properly.”  

A laptop with a person on the screen and a hand raising function popping out of the left side of the screenEmily has enjoyed the accessibility of online spaces. Everyone views the same thing on screen, compared to in-class where the best seats are the front-middle rows in the centre of the classroom. In-person classes do not offer chat-box options, and if you have any questions you have to raise your hand and it brings direct attention to you.

“Some people are a little shy, some people have accents that could deter them from asking a question. I didn’t grow up in Canada, I remember in high school I felt shy talking and saying the wrong thing, sounding off and having to repeat myself. UofT has a lot of international students, so this (option) encourages them to engage and feel more confident in asking a question.”

Emily hopes that learning spaces do not lose this strength of a chat box when returning to in-person lectures and sees the value of ensuring every student have a voice to speak and ask a question in class. In one of Emily’s in-person lectures, her professor uses Vevox, an app where you can submit questions anonymously and the instructor can answer the question during or at the end of class and publish the answer in terms of the topic.  

So far Emily finds the hybrid model to be quite overwhelming, as it’s a lot to adjust to. Having to travel to campus for a one-hour tutorial, and then followed by a synchronous lecture can leave you flustered. 

“I really got to plan day by day…a little bit tough going downtown, having a meeting throughout the day virtually from 10 am to 3 pm, having a class from 3 to 4 pm in person…I am a little conflicted because I like it (hybrid model) in a way where I am finally going out and seeing people, but I am just mostly online.”  

Emily hopes her professors can designate specific days for online or in-person classes to help students plan ahead their schedule, and embrace these strengths that each form of learning has provided to her. 

Each of these student stories, though diverse, express the importance of  accessible opportunities for students to feel like they can engage with communities, and navigate throughout their university experience. Finding connection and belonging is fundamental for all of us – no matter the format – as we all feel the immense importance of human connection in these times. 

*Names changed for anonymity. 

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