Post-secondary institutions have moved a large portion of their studies online because of the pandemic. This has changed how many students are learning and experiencing university. (Unsplash photo)

University life during a pandemic

For many new graduates, the next step is to go and explore the world, whether that be through travel, work or attending university. And for a few Clearwater graduates, they were going to do just that — backpack through Europe, move to a new province and explore their new world.

But, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, borders and economies, those major milestones in life are being put on the backburner.

As provinces across the country began to flatten the curve, some comfortability and normalcy returned. Stores began to open, social circles got wider and schools re-opened.

Though, not all students have been able to return. Universities and colleges across the country announced classes would be moving to an online model come fall. For those Clearwater students, the shift has created some hiccups in their post-secondary experience.

“A huge part of (going to university) was going somewhere new and experiencing something different and meeting new people,” said Josee Cooperman, who graduated this year from Clearwater Secondary School and is in the Bachelor of Science program at Thompson Rivers University.

“Clearwater is absolutely amazing, I love it here, but it definitely felt like it was time to do something different.”

Cooperman had originally planned a backbacking trip across Europe, starting in Italy. The pandemic broke out roughly three months before she was going to fly, and about a week before she was planning to book her ticket. She had also planned to attend University of Victoria in their kinesiology in 2021, after returning from Europe.

Thankfully, she said, she applied to TRU in 2019 as a back-up in case something went awry.

“I’m very thankful that I did apply to TRU in the fall because now I’ve been able to do something productive and use this time,” said Cooperman.

While she’s making good use of her newfound downtime, virtual studies isn’t how she imagined her post-secondary experience. For her, the social aspect was important.

“I think the biggest part is not getting out there and meeting new people, whether it’s professors or peers,” said Cooperman. “Just getting a different perspective from living somewhere else…also building those skills that you get when you’re in person in university.”

The campus life experience tends to be the main selling point for a lot of university and college freshmen. The chance to meet new people, leap head first into new studies, sit in a lecture hall and get a taste of individuality and responsibility.

Virtual classes, however, mean the students are experiencing something new, just not what they were expecting.

Emma Collins was excited to live in Kamloops, meet new people and sit in large lectures, while attending TRU through a Bachelor of Arts program. Now, she’s creating her own schedule and watching pre-recorded lectures from the comfort of her home in Clearwater.

“Sometimes it’s hard to keep focused, especially in classes that I don’t typically enjoy,” she said. “It’s hard to get myself focused and prepared for something that I don’t know how to prepare for and I don’t necessarily like.”

Collins added, however, that otherwise, she’s found it fairly easy to stay on task and complete assignments. But, it feels like the courses are missing something being online. The face-to-face interaction with professors and classmates is gone and the courseload feels easier than it should be.

She also feels a bit a purgatory state, not knowing where she’ll go next.

“Originally, I thought I would transfer, but now, just depending on how this pandemic thing goes, I’m just going to stick with what I’m in right now before I decide anything,” Collins said.

The pandemic kept Ryley Griffin in town as well. He is currently enrolled in the Natural Resource Compliance program at Lethbridge College. He was planning on moving to Lethbridge, Alta., and living in residence, until the pandemic kept everyone at home.

The program is administered a little differently than most others. While the classes are virtual, they are live with every student in attendance, meaning upwards of over 60 people can be on the Zoom call for any given class.

“The teachers are a lot easier to communicate to and they get to know each of us a little bit easier than say, a university-level course,” said Griffin.

Still, he, too, was looking forward to meeting more people and being a lot more social, aspects that, “no matter what,” students won’t get through online studies.

Desite this, he has been able to meet his classmates and professors, through experiential sessions with the college program. Students and teachers meet in Lethbridge for field and lab components during these sessions to supplement the online delivery.

“It’s a whole different experience here,” said Griffin while at a session in Lethbridge. “Not only do I get to check out a whole new part of the country…but getting to see all my classmates and just seeing the different habitats here — there’s a whole bunch of different things that I really don’t get with the virtual experience.”

There have been two week-long sessions held for the students, both of which Griffin has attended. But, as the snow falls and the highways become more dangerous, the eleven-hour drive to Lethbridge through the Rocky Mountains might not be worth the time, money or risk.

Griffin said he would wager about one-third of the students in his program actually live in Lethbridge. Everyone else travels in for the sessions, some coming from as far away as Ontario.

“I wanted to make an effort to make it out to this one, as expensive of a trip as it is.”