Why a pandemic taught me to throw away rose petals

Let’s talk about sex, soulmates, and COVID-19

Why a pandemic taught me to throw away rose petals

To the boy who gifted me a pink rose in the fifth grade:

This will be the last letter that you’ll receive. There was a period in which we wasted hours writing letters to one another, our sweaty fingers stumbling over the keyboards of our Notes app. Earlier, you wrote me a final one requesting a temporary goodbye; tonight, I return the favour by deciding that goodbye will be permanent. I’m sorry my memo was sent a year too late.

As a child, I was made to believe in soulmates, that each person possesses someone else who was created to complement them. My best friend and her boyfriend met during a grade school exchange in their native country. My cousin and his wife met in their first year of high school, and they met again in their first year of university. My mother and father were raised in houses adjacent to one another. Through the influence of these storybook anecdotes, the message became clear: if I waited, my soulmate would come too.

I thought I’d found them in you the moment our classroom desks were moved beside one another’s eight years ago. We were infatuated within a few months, before parting ways on the account of being in separate classes the following year. Though usually, I loathe former partners, you were different. 

Through new relationships, mental health troubles, and career-advancing opportunities, we’d always found a way to be close friends: walking home from the bus stop together or consoling each other after breakups. I thought our connection could survive anything. But, more obviously, there was a stubborn sense that demanded we become more.

This instinct was confirmed immediately following my high school graduation, when I found out that you’d watched me walk on stage to receive my diploma. That proclamation initiated months of curating Spotify playlists with love songs, mid-afternoon 7/11 runs, and midnight confessions enclosed in your parents’ luxury cars. For the first time, I felt at peace. I understood why my life had run its course in the manner it did: to give me my own soulmate story, for me to encounter a legacy similar to my parents’. 

These ideas came to an abrupt halt when you characterized our connection as a summer stereotype. You were healing from a previous relationship. While you did so, you requested that we be friends. You reiterated that you wanted to marry me. You affirmed that, in the future, our love would resume.

As always, we actively attempted to maintain our connection. Slowly, our circumstances shifted from keeping in contact every day, to sending a simple “hello” text on holidays, to feeling out of place engaging with each other’s Instagram posts. In our excruciating silence, I believed your vow, that eventually we’d continue as normal, laughing at this stretch together. Despite my compulsion, I stopped initiating calls. For a month. Then two. Then six.

I succumbed to my urges as my father was transported to the hospital due to a substantial drop in oxygen levels. He would later be diagnosed with COVID-19. My mother would wait three hours for a temporal discharge, crying with relatives over the phone. I would remain at home with my younger brother, obligated to console him, though I was unsure of what the outcome would be.

“He’s gonna be good” was the response I heard from you, but that result wasn’t set in stone. To your point, there were statistics of elderly citizens surviving the virus; inconsistently, there were reports of men younger, stronger than my father passing away. Disheartened, I offered a “thank you” and was met with a liked reply and a read text notification. The style in which you ended all conversations. 

You, who’d once assured me that each of my worries would be heard, were now showing that you couldn’t be bothered by the man who’d caused your wrist to tremble during an introductory handshake. How am I to re-enter a relationship with you, who disregarded my father’s health, who cast him as a demographic? I’m not. I can’t.

On occasion, I witness signs, prompts to return to you. I hear the notes of Haley Reinhart’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” on television ads. I see the silver streak of an Audi racing beside me as I’m learning to drive on the highway. I smell the sugar of Sour Patch Kids Slurpees while passing teenagers in my neighbourhood. In their significance, the message is still clear: because I’m waiting, my soulmate will come, too.

I grieve your memory when roses bloom.

Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering approves fall reading week

Primary motivation is student wellness, says chair of Undergraduate Curriculum Committee

Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering approves fall reading week

The faculty council of U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering recently voted in favour of creating a fall reading week for undergraduate engineering students.

After sending a survey to the engineering community, consulting the associate chairs of the engineering programs, and reviewing other Canadian engineering programs, the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee (UCC) proposed implementing a fall break in early November, which would coincide with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s fall reading week.

Timing and accreditation

In an email to The Varsity, UCC Chair Evan Bentz wrote that the timing of this decision followed the faculty receiving its formal accreditation results in 2019. Engineering programs must be accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board to ensure that their students can become licensed professional engineers in Canada. There are a series of requirements that a program must fulfill — including a minimum number of Accreditation Units — to acquire accreditation. 

In this case, a fall reading week reduces the number of class hours, and therefore the number of Accreditation Units that a student earns. However, Bentz explained that “Historically we have exceeded those requirements with a comfortable margin,” further adding that “the quality of education and the wellness of our students are more important than a count of lecture hours.”

Community consultations

Bentz noted that the primary factor in the decision was student wellness. “Students have expressed to us for years that they are experiencing too much stress in their fall term.”

In February and March, the University of Toronto Engineering Society sent out surveys to students, faculty, academic advisors, and teaching assistants in undergraduate engineering programs. Each group was asked to rank a series of fall break options. Across all groups, the full-week break was ranked the most preferable option, followed by the option of a Thanksgiving week break, and “no change” as the least preferable.

Based on the rankings and qualitative answers, the UCC concluded that students preferred a longer break to a shorter one. Its proposal for the faculty council stated that the findings are “consistent with the idea that many students are overwhelmed with work and believe that the status quo is unacceptable.” 

The UCC also made several recommendations that could be combined with the break to help relieve students’ stress. These included instituting a test ban before and after the break, and evaluating the effect of the break as time goes on.

In order to achieve the intended effect of the break on student wellness, the UCC’s report emphasized that, in order to make room for the break, content would need to be cut from fall courses, not just compacted. Bentz estimates that instructors will need to cut about eight per cent of the content in a class to accommodate the changes. 

Student responses

Sheral Kumar, Director of Skule Mental Wellness, one of the mental health advocacy groups that have been pushing for change within the faculty, commented that “Engineering students often have much higher workloads, [which] can definitely have an impact on stress levels and exacerbate mental health issues.” She added that “the spring semester is always much more manageable due to our spring reading week, and not having that type of break in the fall can be hard on one’s mental health.”

Two students interviewed by The Varsity likewise expressed enthusiasm about the fall reading week. Howard Chang, a first-year student studying engineering science, wrote that the break “would be helpful, especially since as a first year student, I am just getting accustomed to university life.” Chang also noted that first-year engineering students have mandatory classes and less electives, which adds to their stress. 

Aseer Chowdhury, a second-year student studying electrical and computer engineering, wrote that he was relieved to see that material would be cut from fall semester classes due to the new break, and echoed Chang’s point that a fall break might be especially helpful for first-year students. Chowdhury feels that, overall, “It’s definitely great for improving mental health and getting a break from class and studying.”

U of T Magazine scrutinized for initially omitting pro-Hong Kong democracy advocate

Alum Jason Y. Ng suggests possible “self-censorship,” U of T attributes decision to COVID-19 pandemic

<em>U of T Magazine</em> scrutinized for initially omitting pro-Hong Kong democracy advocate

University of Toronto Magazine has come under scrutiny after initially omitting an interview with U of T alum and pro-Hong Kong democracy advocate Jason Y. Ng from its Spring 2020 edition, which was published on April 1. Ng is an author and lawyer who received his Master’s of Business Administration and law degrees from U of T.

In the magazine’s Truth issue, Ng was supposed to be included alongside 11 other U of T alumni in an article titled “Taking a Stand,” highlighting each alum’s pursuit of truth. An excerpt from Ng’s interview in the magazine reads, “By tightly controlling the ‘truth,’ Chinese authorities hope to suppress the [Hong Kong] protest movement and stem its spread to the mainland.” 

Following the omission, both in print and online, Ng publicly raised the question of the magazine’s possible censorship over his critical views toward mainland China. After Ng made these claims on his social media on April 23, the online version of the magazine’s article was updated to include the interview.

Calls for the autonomy and democracy of Hong Kong in relation to mainland China have been at the focal point of the Hong Kong protests, which have made their way to U of T in the past year.

Pandemic accounted for “number of changes,” says magazine 

In an interview with The Varsity, Ng described how an editor at the University of Toronto Magazine reached out to Ng for an interview in relation to his work as the president of PEN Hong Kong, an organization that supports the right to free expression around the world. Ng is also a member of the Progressive Lawyers Group, which defends civil liberties in Hong Kong.

Ng recounted how the editor extensively collaborated with him on the interview excerpt that was to be included in the magazine. Weeks after the issue had already been published in April, the editor notified him that the interview was ultimately excluded — accounting for the decision as an “editorial mishap.” When Ng further inquired, the editor attributed the decision to circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement to The Varsity, U of T Media Relations repeated the editor’s answer: “This issue of the magazine was being finalized as the university was dealing with a rapidly changing situation involving COVID-19, which led to a number of changes to the print edition.” This same comment has since been added below Ng’s interview in the article, as well as the statement that “This item appears only online.”

While U of T Media Relations’ response accounts for the absence of Ng’s piece in the magazine’s print edition, it did not address The Varsity’s inquiry as to why the piece was excluded from the online edition until late April.

Ng suggests possible censorship, given pro-Hong Kong democracy views 

Ng drew considerable public attention in posting his story on Facebook and Twitter, where he suggested the possibility that the omission was due to his views on the Hong Kong-mainland China conflict. “It’s possible that the issue has suddenly run out of space. It’s also possible that it’s a case of self-censorship or the latest example of education institutions caving in to political pressure and avoiding stories that may antagonize China.” 

In his interview with The Varsity, Ng further speculated that U of T alumni donors from mainland China would not welcome his views.

Though he feels that the explanations do not add up, Ng acknowledged that he cannot say for sure whether he was censored due to his political beliefs, and that there is likely no way to prove what really happened. “We may never find out the truth about the ‘truth’ issue — the irony isn’t lost on me.”

U of T Media Relations did not respond The Varsity’s inquiry as to whether Ng’s public reaction to the omission led to the decision to ultimately include his piece in the magazine’s online edition.

Editor’s Note (May 18, 3:32 pm): This article’s description of University of Toronto Magazine‘s notice to Ng regarding the initial omission of his interview has been updated for clarity, after The Varsity was able to confirm Ng’s communications with the magazine.