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Opinion: We must proactively build community in light of online limitations

How the pandemic has impacted the ‘normal’ graduate student experience
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REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY
REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY

While students are still getting a lot of educational value out of their university experience, the essence of what it means to be a university student has vanished into the fiber optic cables of the internet. The allure of higher education was never exclusively about academics. Rather, it was all the trimmings that we have now lost that made the experience so life-changing, intense, and memorable.

Less than 10 days after I received my long awaited admission letter from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s (OISE) Department of Curriculum, Premier of Ontario Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in the province. Needless to say, my dreams of a busy socio-academic life have been completely shattered, and a new reality has set in — one where we are bound to our laptops and couches, hopping from one Zoom meeting to another with absolutely no real human contact.

The much anticipated first day of classes passed just like any other day, with a few Zoom orientation sessions dispersed throughout. To be fair, orientation in both OISE and the School of Graduate Studies emphasized the themes of making connections, encouraging student engagement, and creating a sense of community. 

Professors have been warm and engaging, trying their best to create a welcoming and inclusive environment in their synchronous and asynchronous classes. Despite the efforts, a nagging mantra sits at the back of my mind on a constant loop: “It’s just not the same.” 

For one, the networking component of graduate life has taken a big hit. I have attended several U of T events over the past couple of months, mostly professional development (PD) workshops and some lectures. While I have learned a lot, I have not made a single new acquaintance. 

This can be related to the now well-known procession of Zoom meetings: faceless voices and the anxiety of being the first one to speak. If there are technological difficulties, such as a lagging internet connection or abruptly being kicked out of meetings, one can simply give up on the meeting altogether. This arrangement doesn’t leave a lot of room to create casual conversation, let alone to professionally network. 

Lacking physical presence, your interlocutor remains more of an idea or a concept rather than a person whose physical and emotional cues you can read, interpret, and judge. The reality of attending online networking and PD events is that you aren’t able to network in a meaningful way. This does not bode well for the future of work, given the value of networking when it comes to seeking out employment opportunities.

Had I been in a face-to-face class, I would have probably hung back for a few minutes after class to speak with colleagues or my professor about the lecture, future plans and projects, or maybe an outing we were planning to have. This is an aspect of graduate life that has been completely lost.

I am fortunate enough to belong to an incredibly supportive and dynamic cohort of highly motivated and very talented PhD and master’s students. We have set up a private WhatsApp group to keep in touch. Many of us are participating in a secret Santa gift exchange this Christmas using an app, and we have started a book club to encourage each other to read seminal works on theory in our field. We have all been making an effort to forge connections without having met once in person. 

Reflecting upon my experience as a graduate student during these unprecedented times, I would say a verdict has been reached: humans are social animals through and through. We cannot truly thrive unless we exist inside meaningful networks with other people.

It is essential for students, especially graduate students, to take a proactive approach to create communities within their programs given the online academic world they are currently in.

 

Rana Haidar is a first-year curriculum, teaching, and learning graduate student at OISE.