Students Thoughts on Returning to Campus

A few weeks ago, one of our co-op employers requested an on-campus interview for their position. The co-op office was not open because of the COVID-19 lockdown but restrictions in BC were loosening, so I volunteered to be present to facilitate the interview. Prior to the pandemic, this would not have been an unusual request, but after 17 months of not being on campus, it was a big deal.

Two of the three co-op students interviewing that day had never been to the co-op office so besides the standard interview instructions, we also had to provide instructions on how to find the office and access the building which was still subject to COVID-19 guidelines.

Despite having hosted hundreds if not thousands of on-campus interviews, this awkward experience made us wonder how students were reacting to the approaching return to campus after being locked out from their schools since March 2020. We wanted to hear from students themselves about their experience during the pandemic and their thoughts as they prepare themselves to return to campus, some for the very first time.

Some students already had one term under their belts when the world came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020. Students were in the heaviest part of the term, having just finished mid-terms and focusing on assignments and essays when they made bedrooms and kitchen tables their virtual classrooms. Some also had to return to their home country and navigate closing borders, families grateful for their safe return while losing precious study time to travel and time zone changes.

Other students had just secured a co-op job for the summer and were unsure if they still had a job. Victoria is in the Tourism and Environment program at Brock University.

 "I had my interview for the job I ultimately was offered and accepted, a day before the pandemic was announced and remote working began. However, once the pandemic was announced, I was worried and confused about what that meant for my newly accepted job offer. And I couldn't just drop into the co-op office to ask a quick question like "I'm still hired right?" which would've put me at ease. The unknown and wondering if I still had this job, and what my position would look like, was the most difficult part.

Many students lost their summer work terms in spite of government funding programs which tried to encourage companies to find room for students to work with them in the summer of 2020. Some companies had already been embracing remote work and had systems in place that made it possible for their employees to work remotely while others had to scramble and some even laid off employees while they adjusted their businesses to lockdowns which rolled out unevenly across Canada.

Luckily for Victoria, she was able to continue with her work term, but many students lost their summer  jobs in 2020 and found themselves taking courses remotely for the first time in their lives.  Brieanna, another Brock student is in the Concurrent Education Intermediate Senior program with teachables in English and History. She was in the second term of her second year when COVID hit so was very familiar with campus. The big change for Brieanna was work load.

"Since we weren't physically going to class, we were assigned a lot more work than we usually would be. Therefore, it felt like I was constantly doing schoolwork. I couldn't get ahead, which I usually like to do, but was struggling to not fall behind. Not only did I have to take notes on recorded lectures every week, but I also had to take weekly quizzes on those lectures, do my readings, write critical forum posts, and then respond to my classmates' posts in an equally critical way, and I had to do this all for every single class. On top of this weekly work, I would also have my other larger assignments due. It just got too much, and it felt like all I was ever doing was schoolwork. I would feel exhausted at the end of every day from starring at my screen the entire day. "

Rachel began her first year of university in September 2020 enrolled in a Bachelors of Arts degree with a major in Political Science and a minor in Canadian Politics at Carleton University.  Not only did she have to adjust to first year university, she also had to contend with a heavy work load as many students shared.

"Almost all my courses were social science based which meant lots of writing and due to the online format I believe a lot of my professors removed the written test like exams and replaced them with formal essays, essentially being end of term papers. My thoughts are that they did this because it was harder to cheat and obtain help from your peers while writing at 12-page paper versus doing a test online. "

Rachel was one of a few first year students who moved from her parents' home to live in residence during COVID-19, but it was not the idyllic experience that her two older siblings had told her about.

"It was extremely challenging to make friends as I knew no nobody prior to living in residence. It was hard booking a slot for the gym, which truly helped my mental state, as it was very limited capacity.  And all the restrictions such as not being able to have friends in your room, being banned from floors and buildings other than your own, having all the common areas blocked and not being able to experience the frosh week that every first year hopes for. It made feeling a sense of belonging very challenging."

Rachel spent two terms in residence at Carleton all during lockdown.  

"When I was moved in there were only 6 people on my floor and 3 of them ended leaving halfway through the first term. I only knew two others and they were nice people, but I didn’t really click with them in terms of forming a friendship so I spent a lot of time alone for the first couple weeks. I eventually met other people from other buildings and floors but it was really challenging. This year was nothing like I dreamt my university experience would be. "

Melanie began her studies in Hospitality Management at Vancouver Island University in September 2020. Melanie's COVID school journey was complicated by the need to relocate from Brisbane, Australia to Nanaimo for her schooling.

"We had to get permission to leave Australia, it took 4 months to process, and our exemption only came through 10 minutes before our original flight was due to depart!  Air Canada had cancelled flights out of Australia three times before we were finally able to leave with Air NewZealand, travelling via Brisbane, Christchurch, Los Angeles, and then with Air Canada to Vancouver, and Nanaimo. While we were enroute to LAX, Air Canada cancelled the flight from LA, so we had to overnight in LA, and then proceed with the journey the next day. Every step, we were not sure we would get there!  It was such a relief to check into the flight to Vancouver."

Melanie bought a car sight unseen in order to comply with the quarantine requirement to not take public transportation. Friends delivered the car to the airport along with groceries to allow the family to proceed to Sproat Lake where they would quarantine for two weeks.

"I have never wanted to hug a person as much as I did then.  We had a comical exchange of brown bags like a hostage situation. My friend put the bags down and then stepped 2 metres away so we could then pick them up."     

"We were in a different time zone initially and then jet-lagged in quarantine while classes first started so I had to juggle concentrating while cooped up with family in a little bnb for 2 weeks.  I was so excited when we could actually step past the driveway!"

And although remote learning provided the opportunity to create your own schedule if classes were asynchronous, all students we spoke to were looking forward to returning to campus.  Lisa from Brock University is studying Media and Communications.

"I am most looking forward to that feeling of being inside of the university. It promotes good work ethic, especially when surrounded by all who are working towards a similar goal: higher education. I am excited to study and work on campus, play extracurricular sports and get involved through other means." 

Brieanna, Victoria, Melanie and Rachel echoed this feeling.

"I did not feel like I was part of a community last school year. None of my classes had an in-person or video call component to them, so I didn't get to interact with anyone really... I am excited to meet new people, walk around campus, study in the library, and sit in an actual classroom where I can engage in my own learning." - Brieanna

"Connecting with other students in my class and building an academic support system with my peers. I felt very alone while completing my classes due to not being able to see or speak to other students or my Professors/TAs/Advisors." - Victoria

"I think I am most looking forward to face to face, real interactions.  The screens feel too removed at times. I also feel a lot of misunderstanding can occur as there are body language nuances that are subconscious. It's hard to not be formal when on screen and everything is being recorded. Sometimes it felt like a stilted play." - Melanie

"I am most looking forward to living in a house with all my close girlfriends that I so gladly met, mostly so I can cook my own meals and not eat the caf food and being able to use non- plastic cutlery." - Rachel

For many of the students we spoke to, returning to campus in September will feel like they are first year students. Similar to our students who did their first on-campus interview last month, many will not be familiar with the university campus that they have been a member of for the past year and a half.

Although Rachel spent her first year in residence at Carleton, the rest of the university was off limits.

"What I’m scared for the most and believe will be the most challenging is the transition from remote to in person learning. As I’m going into my second year I feel I should have an understanding of the buildings and where all my classes will be, but the first day of classes I’ll be as clueless as a first year. I also know that getting used to the classroom environment will be a challenging adjustment however something I know I will eventually enjoy. "

Brieanna also shared this concern:

"My challenges returning to campus will be adapting to in-person learning again. I've gotten used to the online format of learning and completing assignments, that I foresee that it will take a bit adjusting to the normal in-person format. For example, I've gotten very used to watching lecture videos where I can rewind when I missed something that my prof said, but in-person I won't be able to do that, so I will have to adjust to taking lecture notes regularly again." - Brieanna

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way we look at school and work. Many companies are transitioning to a hybrid model that allows the flexibility of working from home and working in the office. The students we spoke to also shared that there were some advantages to remote learning including not having to endure long commutes to and from school.

"There were definitely some positive outcomes to learning and working remotely, and I learned a lot about myself in terms of how I study and perform. Personally, I think leveraging both in-person and remote approaches to the learning and work environment, would be an effective way to achieve the highest performance." - Victoria 

We, as Co-op and Career staff will have to manage not only our own adjustments to returning to campus as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the unique experiences that each of our students have endured.