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Anxiety, uncertainty, worry: starting university under COVID-19

A first-year student reflects on the unprecedented challenges of fall 2020
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CHARMAIN WONG/THE VARSITY
CHARMAIN WONG/THE VARSITY

I always felt a mix of eager anticipation and anxiety at the thought of starting university.

I wondered about moving across the country, whether I would make friends and connections, the elevated academic expectations, as well as the ways in which I would fund my education. These fears are legitimate, acceptable, and common amongst almost every person who has ever been or thought about becoming a university student.

However, none of these fears factored in a pandemic that would force universities to adapt to remote learning — trading in lecture halls for video screens on kitchen tables, and organic first impressions in study groups for social media algorithms introducing incoming students to each other via their Instagram feeds.

It has occurred to me that this highly anticipated transitional period in my life has arrived in conjunction with this unprecedented transitional period in how our world operates. This realization only contributed to the pre-existing uncertainties of starting university.

I always pictured myself moving into my dorm at the beginning of the semester. I had watched enough college dorm room reveals on YouTube and coming-of-age movies to connect postsecondary education to a new living situation.

I chose the University of Toronto partially because I wanted to move from Vancouver and experience living in a new province. And, while anxieties around moving out were palpable, I could look to a plethora of students who have already accomplished this. It is precedented.

As a consequence of the virus, being physically present at the school in which you are attending isn’t even a requirement. I went back and forth on my own decision to live on or off campus for months.

Studying from home would mean distractions and a different time zone, as well as a lack of a community of students that would inspire motivation to study. Moving to campus would allow me to have as normal of a start to my university experience as I could possibly have during a pandemic.

However, I worry about a second wave or what would happen if I had to return home with the arrival of a second lockdown. Everyone around me has an opinion; however, no one can offer up any similar experiences. No one has started their university experience during a time when being within two metres of someone else without a mask is enough to provoke an argument.

That’s why I’ve decided to stay home until the winter semester begins in January. 

What started as a small voice in my head worrying that friends would be hard to come by in a new city is now a fully formed anxiety that I probably will not have many friends who go to my school in the first semester. The presence of eager engagement from other first-year students on social media is apparent, but nothing can replace the in-person connections my older relatives reminisce about when they speak about their days in college. Will I ever get that?

Of course, students who started university before COVID-19 felt uncertain about their new academic chapters. However, anxiety around success in school is magnified due to the abrupt transition to online learning during our last semester of high school. Some of my course content was altered, shortened, or removed as a result of online learning — will this affect my preparedness and comprehension levels?

We are consistently reassured that it will all work out — we will experience normal university life when the time comes. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that this is not completely guaranteed.

Such a pivotal moment in my life will not occur, at least not in the way I had planned. Life events that had a set script shifted, and the high school graduates who had known for years that they would celebrate their graduations did not.

That being said, why is a guarantee better than an unpredictable turn of events that may just pave the way for a change?