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“Putting ourselves out there”: COVID-19’s impact on student networking, professional development

Immigrant perspectives on making connections
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GRACE XU/THE VARSITY
GRACE XU/THE VARSITY

For the first time in U of T’s 193-year history, classes are primarily being delivered online. While, this might be the safest option for now, some students are having concerns with the quality of learning that is going to be delivered during the 2020–2021 academic year. For students looking at their prospects after graduation, there are a whole new set of problems.

As an immigrant student who has been in the country for less than six years, I wanted to probe these issues further. I spoke to three U of T students of similar backgrounds: two of them are also immigrants, and one a first-generation student.

Building your network and making connections as an immigrant student isn’t easy, and the in-person element is crucial to getting to know someone. Research shows that the longer you’ve been in Canada, the easier it is to get a job. According to Statistics Canada, immigrants who had been in the country for more than a decade by 2017 had better chances of getting hired compared to those who had recently immigrated to the country.

From these interviews, I surmised that — aside from having to adapt to a whole new learning environment — these students are facing new issues in relation to their professional opportunities.

They spoke about their experiences transitioning to online university, touching on issues like a lack of space in their homes. However, their predominant concern is social in nature, as these students are perceiving a lack of substantive networking and work-study opportunities. As an immigrant student, it is my number one priority to build my network and develop genuine connections.

Given that a 2016 US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Yale University study found that approximately 70 per cent of all jobs are filled through networking, building social and professional networks are likely instrumental for gaining a job or advancing professional careers. However, through it all, these conversations have also yielded a strong sense of optimism, as these students are eager and dedicated to adapting to their new normal.

Transitioning to online university

To understand more about the experience of moving to online university, I spoke with Annie Sahagian — a fifth-year UTSC student double majoring in human biology and media studies, journalism, and digital cultures — and her sister Carly Sahagian, who graduated from UTSC this past June with majors in biology and women and gender studies. Annie and Carly both immigrated to Canada from Syria with their family.

Back in March, during the earlier stages of lockdown, switching to online platforms affected many students. Carly discussed how this switch came as a big shock. She was in her last semester, and the rest of her year changed from in-class exams to sending in a voice recording to get marked for a presentation.

“That was kind of like, ‘oh my god; this is weird,’ ” Carly said.

Carly emphasized that one of the main issues she faced was a lack of space. She mentioned that it was sometimes hard to concentrate and work in the confined space that she shares with her family.

“There’s a lot going on in the house, and I had to remind people that… I’m studying or working,” Carly said.

As of early September, there are few solutions to this, as only limited libraries and study areas have opened at U of T with the ability to safely support students, staff, and faculty. UTM, UTSC, and UTSG libraries are open to students who are having a difficult time navigating their classes from home. However, for most places, early booking is required, and space is very limited.

On the topic of pre-recorded lectures, Carly and Annie both appreciated the new method of delivery. Annie said that although they allowed her to study at her own pace, she had an advantage as an upper-year student — she could adapt quicker because she knew her learning style.

However, if she was in first year, fresh out of Syria, she believes it would’ve been a different story. “First- and second-year students are still figuring out [their learning style], and it’s way harder,” Annie said.

What are the social and networking concerns?

Reduced social life is a new aspect of university that has affected every student at U of T. Aside from a dwindling weekend bar scene, this decreased socialization has other specific impacts on students’ university experiences.

For example, orientation looked very different this year since all three U of T campuses moved their activities online. Annie, who was an orientation coordinator at UTSC in 2019, said how confused she would’ve been if she was a first-year student this year.

She emphasized how much orientation helped her navigate through her first year, and how important that experience was for her. “I needed to meet upper-year students and talk to them and even practice my English,” she said.

Although first-year students still had a virtual orientation week, the in-person element was still missing and — Annie believes — irreplaceable. The unparalleled quality of in-person communication and connections was a strong theme throughout all the interviews, and the lack of opportunities to network was evident as well.

However, due to recent events, it hasn’t been easy trying to network with professionals in order to build a connection.

Melanie Shimov, a third-year UTSG student majoring in human biology and double minoring in Jewish studies and biology, and a first-generation student, said that she’s found the virtual aspect of this year limiting and inaccessible in terms of networking or socialization.

“It’s a different dynamic when you’re going to class,” Shimov said. “For example, third-year classes are supposed to be smaller and maybe a little bit more intimate. I guess on Zoom, you could make that connection [with the professor], and you could email them and reach out, but I feel like it’s not the same — especially if you want to get a position to be a [teaching assistant] or [a] research position.”

She pointed out that even though she would love to have an online role volunteering, she’s not even sure where to start looking. In the past, she recalled that professors would mention positions in class, and finding opportunities was much more accessible when she was on campus. “You got to put in the work,” Shimov said, but she noted that there should be clearer communication of the opportunities available to her.

Carly found that, while she did not feel abandoned by U of T after graduating in June, the effects from the lack of in-person connections manifested in a different way for her. She commented about the many programs available for new graduates, which helped her navigate through networking events and postgraduate life. She participated in the Job Seekers Club at UTSC, which offers many virtual networking events targeted for new graduates.

“This was good in the sense that you were not alone,” Carly said. “We were all sharing that experience, and they were helping us to know how to connect.”

However, just like Shimov, Carly mentioned that the in-person element was missing and that she was not able to build a genuine unique relationship with professionals.

“Everyone is sharing advice and talking, but you don’t really get the same connection when you are in person talking to them,” Carly said. “You’re just receiving information.”

In regard to networking and making connections, professional relationships made during these times tend to, unfortunately, be more passive and superficial, which might inhibit the growth of professional networks for students.

“I think we should still be putting ourselves out there, and we should still be meeting people,” Annie said. “We never know when this situation like the pandemic situation is going to end — you have to be positive.”

The lack of work-study opportunities

The work-study program, which usually offers in-person, on-campus jobs, switched to online platforms due to COVID-19. Work studies are great resources as the jobs not only look great on resumes, but they also provide the students with a deeper knowledge of the field they’re interested in. For students looking to pad résumés or develop further connections in their related area of study, work-study positions are a great opportunity to gain experience to help land a job once they graduate.

Annie has often relied on her work-study positions at UTSC. “My first work study was [the] summer [of] my first year, and ever since, I worked on campus,” she said.

However, she noticed significant changes from moving work studies online. Annie worked as a research assistant this past summer for the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at UTSC. She highlighted how getting the work study was much more difficult than before.

She noted that even though there were more work-study positions available, the process of getting them was more intense since they were open to students from all three campuses. In the past, some positions would usually be geared toward students in a specific program attending one of the three campuses. However, Annie said that moving the work studies to online platforms encouraged many more students to apply, which led to more intense competition for the positions.

She also noticed a huge difference between her experiences with in-person and online work-study positions. Overall, she still believes that even the virtual positions provided new experience and interaction with new people. There remained the ever-present lack of socialization though, which could take a toll at times.

“When you don’t see a lot of people, [you’re] not socializing… It [can be] a lot,” Annie said.

What has U of T’s response been?

Since the cancellation of classes back in March, both faculty and staff at U of T have been working diligently to support and accommodate all students, whether they be international or domestic.

In my conversations with these three students, they all expressed that — despite the drawbacks of this virtual year — they were very satisfied with U of T’s response and appreciated the additional support that the university is providing. Although the in-person opportunities are essentially nonexistent, they understand this choice given the pandemic.

As a commuter student, Shimov discussed how glad she was that classes were moved online. For commuter students, transportation is definitely harder now since few students feel comfortable taking public transportation and would be more comfortable learning online.

“As much as I’d rather like to have classes in person, it’s definitely smart to keep it online for now,” Shimov said.

She found that to get through this year with its limited social contact, she was grateful to be part of a group of friends who take similar classes and would be able to provide support.

Annie shared her opinion, saying that she appreciates all the work that staff and faculty are putting in to provide the best possible service to their students. She discussed how much harder their roles as educators are now. For instance, she has noticed the increased frequency of emails and announcements they are sending out to provide as much accommodation as possible, especially for students who are located outside of Canada.

Carly and Annie both believe that the additional support, resources, and virtual opportunities being offered by U of T justify incidental fees not being significantly reduced. Although many students circulated petitions to cut these fees, Carly and Annie said that the money is providing the student body with many new virtual resources and services.

After all, despite the issues with space, the loss of in-person networking opportunities, and the increased competition for work-study positions, Carly, Annie, and Shimov are still looking for silver linings during this pandemic. Regardless of the shift to virtual platforms, they believe that, ultimately, the community at U of T remains intact — it’s just in another form this year.