Before this year went very off the rails and we started getting emails using the words “unprecedented times” to describe 2020 at least twice a week, many new high school graduates were planning on having fun, eventful first years at university. Instead, they became higher education’s guinea pigs in the great social experiment of online learning. Their entry to university has been marked by having to learn all the skills required to survive school without in-person peer support, in their homes, and with an extremely different non-academic experience.
A crucial part of campus life has always been the social interactions at clubs, classes and other events that we were able to go to. What happens when there is no campus, though? I asked some first years about their social lives this year and their perspective on the lack of in-person interactions.
Ainslie, a first-year student living with family said, “I expected a super fun first year where I’d be living in res and meeting tons of new people. I feel like the Class of 2024 was truly cheated out of the fun of our first year due to COVID-19 because we can’t experience social gatherings at university like parties. Instead, we’re stuck with only having the academic side of things online where we’re not able to make good connections with peers.” These feelings were echoed by many others. An anonymous freshman mentioned that the expectations for the social life at university included, “Going out in Kelowna and dorm parties and meeting a lot of my peers on campus”, before the pandemic made this difficult. Yatharth emphasised the novelty of specific places like, “enjoy[ing] time at the different on-campus restaurants,” and Amogh points out that it would have been nice, “to get to know a lot of people from all around the world, make lot[s] of friends, enjoy parties etc.”
While the importance of staying home and being safe is not lost on anybody, it is quite apparent that the human interaction, which contributes immensely towards making these 4 years such a special part of life, is missing - as is also evident in the world outside of university.
That may be why the spirit of keeping hope alive in these times is so strong with freshmen. In my attempts to get in touch with first years for this article, I discovered all the different ways that they have been connected with each other. The Facebook group that every graduating class has is present here, but in addition that, each subsection of the larger group of the class of 2024 has their own Whatsapp group chats. There are global groups for the whole class, faculty based ones, groups that are LGBTQ inclusive, and Instagram group chats for some specific classes. Michaella, another freshman, shared that there were, “socially distanced meetings [...] on campus,” in the earlier days of the pandemic, but now there have been online Zoom sessions that are completely nonacademic and casual. In fact the word ‘Zoom’ has been a resounding answer to any questions about how communication has been taking place. Amogh said that, “all meetings [are] done digitally with people living far away” from each other, and that although “nothing that big” has been organised by the student front, “[they] do keep having calls to help each other.” As Ainslie puts it, “It’s really nice being able to have a way to talk to others when we can’t do so in actual real life social settings.”
The struggles that the class of 2024 are facing are unfair, but these experiences only seem to make them stronger. They overcome everything and find a way to get in touch with each other in order to restore the true meaning of what the “college experience” is supposed to be. Although it is a bizarre time that everyone is trying to cope with, these students have persevered through this complicated beginning to their years ahead. Their faith gives us the strength to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that while we may not know when we can return to the lineup at the campus’s Tim’s or the crowded tables at the Commons, it is only a matter of time before these freshmen can experience it themselves for the first time. They teach us that we can work together to make this a little more bearable for all of us.