Return to a post-secondary education during COVID-19

By Jessica Topfer

In August of 2014, I sat in my bedroom scrolling through the Trent University website, nervously selecting courses for the first year of my undergraduate studies. Fast forward six years, and I found myself nervously scrolling through the website again, selecting courses for the final year of my undergrad. This time though, my nerves are caused by a new uncertainty – COVID-19.

Jessica Topfer, writer-at-large.

As the first person in my family to attend post-secondary school, I didn’t really know what to expect from the university experience when entering my first year.

Roughly, I imagined it consisting of copious amounts of reading, endless hours spent in lecture halls listening to professors drone on in monotone voices about theory, and lots of instant noodles.

While those assumptions were pretty spot-on, I wildly underestimated the amount of personal and professional growth I would undergo.

For the most part, that growth came not as a result of books and lectures, but from relationship-building and conversations with classmates, professors and members of the university community.

It feels impossible to imagine my undergrad without seminars, lectures, clubs, events, placements and group study sessions. When the pandemic unfolded earlier this year, and my courses transitioned to online for March and April, I felt completely overwhelmed – and I certainly was not alone.

Losing those interpersonal supports and learning opportunities made it even more challenging to adapt my learning style to online platforms and my grades slipped a whole letter grade between March 17 and the end of my semester. If this is any indication of the year to come, I worry about maintaining my overall academic standing while also maintaining my mental health.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. At the end of this academic year, I will have achieved my Honours Bachelors Degree in International Development Studies and Business Administration, and I already have a full-time job in the field. Being back home also means that I get to lean on (and support) my sister, who herself is struggling to deal with a similar heartbreak as she enters her first year at the University of Guelph from her computer in our living room.

It can be all too easy to feel as though online learning takes away those key opportunities that make the post-secondary experience so rewarding. But these are the cards we have been dealt this year. The relationship-building and conversations that make post-secondary education so memorable and successful can and will continue to happen.

Whether on campus or online our classmates, faculty and community members are still there – we just have to push ourselves a little harder to ensure we keep the sense of community that in-person learning has to offer.

My advice to post-secondary students this year? Embrace online learning and stay engaged! Set yourself a weekly goal of how many students, faculty or community members you will connect with, and always advocate clearly about what support you need from your department’s faculty to be successful in your studies while also staying happy and healthy.

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