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UTSU, SCSU plan all virtual programming for 2020–2021 orientation

UTM forced to cancel in-person programming after notice from administration
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Orientation will look different this year due to COVID-19. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
Orientation will look different this year due to COVID-19. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

With provincial guidelines in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, typically crowded events like orientation will look different this year. Each of U of T’s student unions, which typically run the major orientation events, has come up with strategies to engage first-year students and help them develop strong bonds with others, despite the mostly online format.

While UTSG and UTSC have moved all of their programming online, UTM had originally intended to offer a combination of virtual and in-person programming. However, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) was notified in late August that it would be prohibited from holding in-person orientation events.

UTSG focuses on student support and resources

Neeharika Hemrajani, Vice-President Student Life of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), wrote in an email to The Varsity that events that are typically held in-person, like the Clubs Carnival and Streetfest, will be held online. The UTSU will also offer several digital club fairs to promote UTSU-recognized clubs and hold virtual livestreams with special guests and performances in collaboration with campus groups.

The union will use social media channels to bring content to students by hosting takeover Tuesdays and Thursdays, giveaways, and other incentives. The UTSU will also be streaming a monthly virtual speaker session that will connect students with inspiring groups and individuals on campus for Q&A sessions and live events.

“I hope that our plans for Orientation will bring the True Blue spirit to our students near and far, despite how different the new academic year will feel,” wrote Hemrajani.

Being an international student, Hemrajani worries that students will feel disconnected from campus life, given how difficult it can be to transition to university life. “We hope to continue sharing the exciting student groups and services we have here at UTSG,” she wrote.

UTSG’s orientation is funded by an orientation levy that is included in student tuition and the UTSU membership fee. According to Hemrajani, in past years, the UTSU spent over $200,000 on orientation, with the budget for the 2018–2019 orientation being over $270,000.

She wrote that this year’s orientation will cost around $100,000, describing it as “one of the most inexpensive in the Union’s history,” and adding that the leftover funds will be used to support other UTSU programming and move the UTSU into the Student Commons, which is expected to open later this year.

UTMSU caters to student needs

A statement put out by the UTMSU on August 27 expressed frustration at the late notice from U of T, noting that no concerns were raised throughout the summer while the UTMSU worked with university representatives about their in-person orientation plans. 

“The UTMSU is extremely disappointed in how late this decision was made,” the statement reads. “Since March, the UTMSU has worked diligently to adapt its programming to COVID-19 safety protocols.”

In an email to The Varsity, Mitra Yakubi, President of the UTMSU, wrote that the union knew student experience would be affected by the pandemic and wanted to provide first-year students with options. “COSMOS ‘20 prioritizes meeting students where they are and aims to inform incoming students of all the services, events and campaigns offered to them by their student union,” she wrote. 

Virtual orientation at UTM will feature innovative activities, such as a digital escape room where students will use team building and critical thinking skills to work through a space adventure. Yakubi emphasized that they also wanted to cultivate the competitive spirit of the UTMSU’s orientation while helping students get to know one another. 

She also stressed that it’s important for leaders to have the opportunity to share their experiences with first-year students to help them transition to university life. The UTMSU has included academic programming to encourage these kinds of interactions.

Before the event was cancelled, The Varsity spoke with Roxy Moldovanu, an incoming UTM student who chose to buy tickets for the virtual and in-person orientation. “I don’t know a lot of people there,” she said, “so I thought that going in-person would be a lot more helpful. “I feel like it’s different when you interact with people… in-person,” she noted.

Moldovanu was optimistic about the in-person aspect, and was confident that as long as leaders and attendees followed provincial guidelines and took precautions, she would have been safe at in-person events. While she thinks the environment would have been more friendly under regular circumstances, she also noted that students who choose not to attend may be missing out.

Speaking about orientation before it moved from mostly online to completely online, Moldovanu said, “I think it’s a little bit of a shame just because I know me and a lot of other people, we wanted that kind of first-day-on-campus experience where you get to see everybody.”

According to Yakubi, this year’s orientation rates will be lowered. 

UTSC creates program based on research

This year’s UTSC orientation, Starship Launching, includes physical distancing pastimes such as watching movies and playing video games to engage students. Incoming students will be encouraged to participate in narrative role-playing games that will transport them across the solar system to their university in 2020 and teach them more about UTSC.

In an email to The Varsity, TJ Ho, Vice-President Campus Life of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), acknowledged the challenges that students face in making friends from home. He explained that the SCSU has put a lot of effort into researching ways to optimize student experience.

“Research has shown that, for optimal human interactions, groups of 3-10 people are ideal. This is why we put forward the concept of ‘Quaranteams’ which are smaller froshies teams of five first years and one group leader,” Ho wrote. 

Ho feels that orientation is a way to make the university into a home. “What I loved most about UTSC is also the sense of community and the friendly atmosphere,” he wrote.

The SCSU will also offer social outlets and virtual community events after orientation to support students and strengthen their relationships.

UTSC’s orientation will be entirely free of charge, paid through the SCSU’s budget. 

Editor’s note (October 4): An outdated version of this article that does not match the print version was previously uploaded. This article has been updated with the correct text. The Varsity regrets this error.