With classes returning to in-person this semester and COVID restrictions being lifted, journalism student Sara Belas decided to come to campus to hang out with her two friends on one of her days off. The three of them got lunch together, went to the gym and, when one of her friends went to a class, Belas and her other friend worked on assignments together until the class was over. Afterwards, they went to Warehouse, the bar across the street from campus, for happy hour.
“All three of us were like ‘we’ll just go for one drink and then we’ll go home,’“ said Belas. But the three friends ended up staying at the bar until 2 a.m. “We started drinking. We started talking, we just kept going and it was such a fun night with my two best friends. It felt like what I had hoped university would feel like.”
This desire for the social aspects of the university experience is something that resonates with students. Throughout the pandemic, some students have felt like they missed out on the social experiences of university that existed pre-pandemic. According to a 2020 study by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), nine per cent of students listed the lack of social dynamic and university experience as the main reason their university experience has been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
This social experience includes class activities as well. In the upper years of the Ryerson urban planning program, students get to go on field trips to different cities around the world as part of their mandatory courses. The graduating cohort of this year did not get this full experience, said Anish Panday, a fourth-year urban planning student.
“One of the best parts about the urban planning undergrad program is you get to go on these fun trips,” Panday said.
Instead, he attended these field trips virtually. Last year, he spent hours on Zoom, meeting with local planners in Vancouver with the rest of his class. In October 2021 he attended a virtual field trip to Chicago. But the experience is not the same as the actual trip would have been, said Panday.
The way that the trips are structured is to spend the day fulfilling the academic requirements, but then the evenings are times when students can socialize and explore the cities they are visiting. With the trip occurring virtually, “that social aspect was totally taken out of the equation,” said Panday.
This loss of experience is something felt by many university students. Some of the more significant losses for young adults during the pandemic were related to education and important social events or milestones, according to a 2021 study. These experiences, the study says, are essential markers of development, during the university period where people are investing in goals and socializing.
After two years of learning during a pandemic, fourth-year international economics and finance student Rima Thakkar is ready to graduate and be done with school — at least for now.
“It made me just want to take a break,” Thakkar said. “I feel like this (online) transition was just too taxing, and then having to go back (to school) again, would be too much of an adjustment for me.”
According to OCUFA, 16 per cent of students say that burnout and bad experiences with online learning were the main reasons why their university experience has been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
Thakkar is not alone in this desire for a break from school. Fourth-year York University environmental studies student Maya Adachi said that she feels the same way about returning to school.
“I’m considering grad school, maybe in a couple of years, but not immediately,” said Adachi. “I don’t think I could do grad school right away after graduating (from undergrad). I’m going to leave a bit of a gap before going back for sure.” She recently accepted a contract for a job after her graduation and said that she is primarily trying to focus on that right now.
Panday said that after the two years of online school, he is looking forward to “finishing and graduating and starting to work.” He has a full-time job that he is set to begin in June, and he is ready to move on from university. “I’m ready to start the next chapter in my life,” he said.
“I can understand the feeling of wanting to stay in school for a bit longer. It does give structure and stability,” said Adachi. But she says she is ready to be done with university and move on to the rest of her adult life. “I am ready to leave. But like I said, I will miss that opportunity to learn and the community that comes with being a student,” she said. “I’m ready to go off and find something else to do.”
If Thakkar was to go back to school for a post-graduate degree, it would be for the professional experience of the degree, not chasing the social experience of her undergraduate degree. “I don’t think I would be seeking the same things I was seeking from undergrad from a post-grad degree … Definitely not the social aspects of it, because I don’t think it’s possible (to replace that) anymore.”
While Panday lost the experience of an in-person trip in his upper years, he still looks back fondly on the social experiences he had in his first two years of pre-pandemic university. He recalled one day when a group of his friends were working on an assignment together and had suddenly realized that they had worked straight through the day and had yet to eat anything. The group of friends ended up going to the Ryerson campus pub, Ram in the Rye, and hung out together.
“That’s a memory that stood out. I don’t know why, like in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that important, but it just kind of stuck,” he said.
For Belas, these kinds of memories and social experiences are what she looks forward to continuing to develop in her time in university. “I’ve always heard people talk about their university experiences like it’s the best time of their lives. They’re core memories that are locked in,” said Belas.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the Winter 2020 semester, Belas had been finishing up her first year of university. After some consideration, she decided to become a part-time student rather than continue to take a full course load. Online university was difficult for her to focus, and online school was not delivering the university experience that she wanted, so she decided to drop the number of courses she was taking. Now, instead of graduating within four years, like she had assumed she would when she was 18, Belas is aiming to do it in six years.
“If anything, extending it made me more excited to continue doing university,” she said. “I have accepted (that) I’m going to take a really long time with the university experience. But it makes me kind of glad that I’m taking a long time, because I can still get the actual university experience I wanted.”
When thinking about the experiences she wants to have during her degree, Belas says that the simple idea of doing her work in a coffee shop, seeing friends on campus, and going out for happy hour drinks are the kinds of things she is looking forward to.
“That was what I was really looking forward to and I still am really looking forward to,” she said. “I’m a bit more hopeful because people are vaccinated, and restrictions are lifting.”
Now that she has gotten to experience some of these things, Belas is feeling excited about what is yet to come in her extended degree. “The few experiences I’ve had that match my expectations I had about university are some of the best memories of my life.”