by Abby Adair

On September 2, the first influx of students began arriving on the Carleton campus to start their very first year of university during an ongoing global pandemic. (Among them was the intrepid Leveller correspondent bringing you this very article!) Over the course of a week, students moved into their dorms, nervously excited to start their college experience.

When classes began on September 9, these trailblazers booted up their computers to attend their first virtual lectures, now joined by other students attending class from the comfort of their own homes. 

These students were beginning an unprecedented university life.

When we think of the college experience, we imagine crowded lecture halls and late-night parties, accidentally sleeping through the occasional morning class and hijinks that forge lifelong friendships. 

This year, however, things look astonishingly different. 

Connecting you to Zoom University Participants. Illustration: Crystal Yung

Campus Life During a Pandemic

Students who dared to venture onto campus chasing some semblance of normality were faced with the hard truth that the rowdy first year of university they were implicitly promised was not going to be their reality. Meanwhile, students who decided to stay home and log on to classes each day from their own bedroom found their quintessential flight from the nest postponed indefinitely. 

It’s all a stark contrast to what they might have hoped for. And now we must face an undeniable truth about these brand-new university students: they’re struggling. Struggling to adapt to online learning at the rate demanded of them and struggling to maintain the balance between work and play necessary for good mental health.

Many students got a preview of these difficulties way back in March, when in-person learning in public schools across Ontario shut down. Back then, parents and students alike were forced to learn a very hard truth — that learning online is difficult. Access to strong and reliable internet connection can’t be counted on, and it’s easy for students to spend just as much time fighting with the tech they need to learn as they do actually learning. Even when the tech works the way it should (however rare that might be), many students find it hard to stay focused while learning at home, faced with an onslaught of never-ending distactions.

Today, many first-year university students are transitioning from high school to university — which happens to have a much more intense workload — and they are doing so with the pre-existing challenges of learning online imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. These difficulties are magnified for students living in residence, who are away from home, in a foreign environment, without much social support.

Ontario’s universities have reopened to varying degrees, but most students are having their social lives heavily restricted by their schools. Still, their partying habits haven’t completely changed —  it’s just that these days college parties regularly make headlines. Mainstream news stories are eager to paint youth as irresponsible. Writers beg students to just stay home

But reality is not so simple. Socializing is an important part of students’ mental health, and students are placing themselves in unsafe scenarios because of universities’ heavy restrictions. 

Amidst the hullabaloo and hand-ringing, students themselves are rarely heard from. 

Students shouldn’t have to attend dangerous gatherings in order to have fun and facetime with peers.

Talking to Actual Students

For this article, The Leveller interviewed first year Carleton students and encouraged them to share their opinions on socializing in the age of covid. 

They were asked about students’ “excessive partying” in the wake of a scolding email from the university administration about a party of over one hundred people, said to have taken place at the Hartwell Locks on the Rideau Canal, just off the Carleton campus. (For the record, we at The Leveller have been unable to verify this party actually happened, despite it seeming like the scandal of the year at the time of the interview. Somehow it seems to have left no trace on the collective unconscious of the internet.)

When asked if he could empathize with party-goers, Patrick Muir (bachelor of public affairs and policy management) answered:

“I feel like — and this is just the opinion of a student of similar age — it’s to be expected that things like this would occur. Do I sympathize with them? No. But do I think what they’re doing is heinous? No … Every age group is doing this in different facets. Adults are gathering for dinners every night; we’re partying at a lock. What’s the difference? I see very little.”

Muir was then asked about the disregard some students have shown for safety, which officials like Dr. Chris Mackie (of the Middlesex London Health Unit) consider to be a factor in the spike of Covid-19 cases across Ontario over the last few months.

“In the earlier stages of the pandemic, it was brought to us that we are less likely to be as affected as older age groups, symptom-wise [by Covid-19],” Muir explained. 

This tended to give students the impression they were invincible, Muir said, a feeling that was bolstered when there were few cases this summer in his age demographic. “It will take probably a little while for us to adjust to our lack of immunity,” he added. 

In his interview, Muir explained that he decided to come to residence because he didn’t believe that he could find academic success at home .

“My living situation was not very academically oriented, in the sense that staying home would probably impede on my ability to do the best I could.”

Students staying in residence. Illustration: Crystal Yung

Hannah Shapre (bachelor of international business) came all the way from British Columbia to live in residence, and shared a similar sentiment. 

In her interview, she explained, “I moved in on the sixth, [of September, to residence] and then I found out from other people on my floor that someone had tested positive [for Covid-19], but the university didn’t confront it at all.”

“I remember going to my RF [residence fellow] and being like, is this true? I’m so worried! And they were like, ‘we can’t confirm or deny it.’ And then I was called on the fourteenth to isolate, because I had been in contact [with a direct] contact.”

Shapre is one of the few students on campus who had to self-isolate for two weeks, along with the rest of the students on her floor. She explained that the whole experience had been very confusing. Health officials and university staff initially told her two different things about whether or not she had to isolate, in multiple phone calls in a single day. They also failed to communicate where or how she was exposed to Covid-19 in the first place. 

Shapre was left guessing — was she exposed on a walk up the canal to the Hog’s Back waterfall that she went on with students from her floor? Something else? 

Here at The Leveller, we see the overall effect of this kind of experience as vaguely infantilizing for students — like being sent to your room by parents who won’t tell you what you’ve done wrong. 

When asked if she could sympathize with students partaking in partying, Shapre’s answer reflected the difficulty of her time in isolation.

“Honestly, maybe before I was in isolation, but after? No. You definitely realize how your actions affect others,” she explained. “Maybe before I would be like, ‘Oh, you know, they want to make the best out of their experience.’ After being in isolation for two weeks, I’m not going to be in contact with anyone; I can’t do that again.”

“The fact that the numbers are going up, up, up, and people are just turning a blind eye to it? I don’t think I can,” Shapre said strongly. However, when asked if she believed that the majority of students are disregarding Covid-19 safety protocols, she answered no.

“I feel like we get a little bit of a bad rap,” she said. “Yes, there are still parties, which is sad, but it’s not the majority [who attend them]. There’s a lot of people who really care about their health, and a lot of people whose families are at risk, and they’re at risk.”

In the end, only three of roughly 20 students from Shapre’s floor contracted Covid-19, and all three made safe recoveries. 

Sharpe’s experience raises an interesting question. How do students unwilling to attend risky gatherings socialize — an important part of good mental health — and do they socialize at all?

Some students chose to abstain entirely from the residence experience. Katarina Stipanovic (bachelor of public affairs and policy management) made the decision not to come to residence because of the pandemic. 

When asked how she felt about completing her first year online, she explained that it has been very disappointing. 

“As much as I enjoy learning, the most appealing part of school for me is the social interaction. Working from home means that I do not have the opportunities to meet new people and have face-to-face interactions,” Stipanovic said.

Even from home, she is still privy to the irresponsibility of students on campus. 

“I understand that people want to get out, have fun, and see others,” she acknowledged. “I also enjoy being with other people and just having fun. That’s part of the university experience, and it’s frustrating to not have those normal experiences.

“That being said, this is not the time to be having large gatherings. Right now, we need to be focused on limiting COVID-19 transmission. I would urge those who have been attending these large gatherings to reconsider their actions and be mindful of the fact that they are not only putting themselves, but the entire community at risk.”

The overwhelming plea from these Carleton students seems to be for the partying to stop, but then, how can we stop it?

Students in their own rooms connecting digitally. Illustration: Crystal Yung

How to Move Forward

We need to allow for students to see one another safely, so that they need not put themselves at risk in order to socialize. Students shouldn’t have to attend dangerous gatherings in order to have fun and facetime with peers.  

It’s time that we recognized  students’ struggles, met their needs, and prioritized their success and happiness. Social interactions and emotional connection are not separate from learning; they are necessary to establish balanced, healthy lives. 

This lines up with statements by experts like Leo Erlikhman, a researcher at Queen’s University who has studied student drinking and other aspects of student life. In a piece for The Conversation, Erlikhman argued “Universities need to collaborate with government policy-makers to provide guidelines that acknowledge the important role socializing plays in student mental health, and that will help students find safer ways to participate in building personal networks and supports.”

Erlikham also emphasized how first year students specifically adjust to their new environment. “Students establish peer and study groups, engage in extra-curricular activities and activities that provide them a sense of belonging and a strong source of support. Building these bonds is essential to assist students in acclimating to the campus environment and coping with the stressors of university life.”

Student connecting to online classes.

Carleton has done well to move some events online, like Frosh Week and Club Expo, but the work doesn’t end there. Any activity that can be done safely in person must be done. Outdoor events are one of the safest ways to interact, with nature’s own ventilation system dispersing covid-carrying droplets.  Close contact with anyone is a risk, but there are many low-risk, social-distancing-friendly activities that even come with a stamp of approval from the Mayo Clinic. Walking, hiking, biking, picnics — or even skating the canal as the winter months roll in — are low-risk activities with high rewards for the mental health of students.

Students must not be completely isolated. They must be allowed a small social circle or cohort.  Common spaces on campus should remain open, be equipped with sanitation equipment, and invoke schedules for group use.

Universities are in some ways uniquely equipped to organize, host, and execute safe and socially distant gatherings. They already have all students’ contact and health info. Not only that, they have large buildings and rooms — fieldhouses, sports fields, and university centres — with ventilation systems meant to accommodate hundreds if not thousands of people — all sitting empty. Surely the same administration that can cram thousands of students into exam halls on a tight schedule can safely rotate little groups of students through these same spaces for some wholesome socializing. 

In order for students to socialize safely, Carleton should also make Covid testing available to all students who request a test, not just those who  are symptomatic.

Society has had to fight off a scary, deadly new virus before — HIV. Then as now, giving people access to testing and tools for safe(r) activities is more realistic and effective than preaching abstinence while researchers look for new medical therapies. Abstinence-only messaging has been counterproductive when it comes to drugs and sex, and we are watching it fail when it comes to pandemic socializing.

Carleton owes it to its students to support students’ well-being throughout their studies in any circumstances, let alone the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in this year. This is especially true when students are paying full tuition for a greatly reduced experience during an ongoing pandemic.

Pandemic Education, At What Price?

Students have actually been calling for Carleton to reduce tuition fees — second-year cognitive science student Jasmine Doobay-Joseph started a petition that has garnered over 7,000 signatures. Meanwhile, undergrad student rep Nathaniel Black has proposed a $700-1000 tuition rebate, something he plans to continue to pursue at the Board of Governors in the new year. 

So far the administration has hand-waved students’ concerns about paying the same for less on reduced incomes by pointing to how “designing virtual classrooms and online opportunities for students requires multimillion-dollar investments,” as spokesman Steven Reid put it in identical statements, months apart, to Capital Current and the Ottawa Citizen.

But delivering “the high-quality experience our students expect and deserve” (Reid again) isn’t just a matter of designing “virtual classrooms” or excuses to keep overcharging students for a university education. 

This pandemic likely won’t be over anytime soon, and it’s time for universities everywhere to adapt in order to provide quality education to their students — which includes opportunities so socialize and build community. And the time is not for the kind of abstinence-only approach that time has proven ineffective over and over again. We know that students are finding ways to socialize anyway, and that simply telling them not to isn’t working. 

Implementing the kind of measures we’re calling for can make the grind of a university experience mediated exclusively through screens bearable. Only if residence students are allowed to socialize safely will they have a good chance at surviving Zoom University. 

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