Embracing the unexpected, by Seher Singh

To me, university was always a college pamphlet fantasy. When I thought about it, I imagined studying in aesthetically pleasing libraries and sitting on lush quads in a circle of multicultural peers, giggling away at some inside joke. My first year at U of T promised me an escape from the routine I’d grown accustomed to for 18 years while living in Kobe, Japan. But after years of crafting my undergraduate plan of attack, a wrench was thrown into its execution: I needed to stay in Japan until Canada permitted international students to enter the country. 

When September came, I was forced to navigate the uncharted territory of Zoom university in the heavily charted territory of my childhood bedroom. With every paper and midterm, I further dissociated university from the college pamphlets. Friends and family who were hoping to take advantage of my four extra months at home didn’t see much of me — I became nocturnal, slogging through 4:00 am lectures on Plato’s Symposium

January rolled around and travelling to Canada became a possibility. My stomach was knotted and the days grew fleeting — I didn’t want to leave. I’d set aside that college pamphlet idea of university. Still, I decided to go. Every leg of the journey — from hugging my dog goodbye to touching down at the Toronto Pearson Airport — chipped away at me. When I entered the university’s quarantine accommodation, I gaped out my bedside window at the city skyline: the only glimpse into Toronto I would have for two weeks. Tears welled in my eyes. “What did I just do for myself?” I asked.

The answer? A favour.

In a major plot twist, moving into residence with 13 first-year students surpassed my expectations. Amidst days chock-full of studying, I was surrounded by compassionate, fun-loving friends who made every day exciting and new. Toronto grew to be my home away from home. 

But with the submission of final exams came the end of my four-month stay in Toronto. I surprisingly encountered the familiar feeling of a knotted stomach as the days started to feel fleeting, but this time it was tempered with nostalgia — I’d never experience my first year of university again. Yet, after the epic highs and lows of online university, I was ready to let go and look forward to a new chapter in my life. Once I freed myself from college pamphlet expectations, I had an experience that was special to me. For once in my life, I couldn’t be more grateful that things didn’t go as planned.

Diving into campus life for the first time, by Dellannia Segreti

Being a commuter student, I saved a lot of money this year that I would have otherwise spent on my commute, which was an hour long each way. Before the pandemic, my days were filled with early mornings, traffic-filled streets, hurrying home after class for my weekly family dinner, then heading off to work — life was always rushed. Any time I did have on campus was spent in the library, catching up on weekly readings. But the pandemic put cash in my pockets and left me with ample time between classes with nothing exciting to do as stay-at-home orders became the new normal. 

That’s when I realized that I had a lot of spare time that I could use to make a difference and to foster connections. I began to scavenge through CLNx for volunteer opportunities and personal and academic growth workshops, as well as through Hart House for online opportunities pertaining to arts and fitness. That’s where I found the serendipity of the new normal — the virtual environment. I began enrolling in everything and anything that I could find, and I found myself making time for the important things that allow me to grow as a person and give back to my community. I got involved in tri-campus events and programs and learned a plethora of new skills, from photography to meditation to kickboxing. I now incorporate meditation into my everyday life — it allows me to take a moment and reflect on the day ahead. 

It is hard to find joy in days that seem to blend into one, with day after day spent on the same computer in the same place in my home. But despite all the negatives that the pandemic has brought, it also allowed me, as a commuter student, to get involved on campus. This year, for the first time, I could experience all that the University of Toronto has to offer its students.

Switching paths and learning to conduct research online, by Valeria Khudiakova

The end of the world as we knew it in March 2020 coincided with the end of my career in physics and math, when I requested a psychology specialist on ACORN. I had realized I couldn’t see myself not studying psychology, and had recently discovered a passion for participatory autism research. My noble goal was — and still is — to do a PhD dedicated to making the world a better place for autistic people.

I knew that research experience was key to getting into grad school. This past year, I did my Research Opportunity Program (ROP) at Dr. Nicholas Rule’s Social Perception and Cognition Laboratory, where I conducted two studies that couldn’t be less related to participatory autism research. But any research experience counts — it’s the skills you develop that will hopefully land you that coveted grad school spot.

After psychology labs were shut down, researchers had to move their work online. Although navigating the underground mazes of Sidney Smith Hall looking for the right lab is an experience like no other, some research seems inherently better suited to being done online. Software like Qualtrics, a tool for creating web-based surveys, make participating in research more accessible to people with disabilities — including people in the community that makes up my main research interest. However, in order to yield quality data, participants require stable internet access and must be able to spend a few uninterrupted minutes in a space void of distractions. Those are both privileges. Sometimes we forget that our participants are real people with their own stories, and reflecting on how our research impacts the wider community is crucial, which is something I’ve learned through carefully examining existing autism research.

In December 2020, I started planning my ‘magnum opus’ — an online exploratory study into how LGBTQ+ autistic adults experience intersectional stigma. Yet rejection is part of the online research experience as much as it is part of the traditional one. When I didn’t get the Laidlaw Scholarship, which I had hoped to use to finance my research, I was tempted to react by criticizing its overwhelming emphasis on the colonial conception of leadership in academia and its focus on people who occupy a position of power. Luckily, my college awarded me a bursary, and I am ready to launch my study in the coming days, once it has received ethics approval.

My takeaway? Keep trying. Someone will see your hard work, passion, and determination. Someone will want you on board.

Facing discomfort and discovering community, by Alessia Tenaglia

If you had asked me before I started the fall semester if I would have my camera on during online classes, I would have most likely expressed my aversion to the idea and would list several reasons why I should avoid it entirely.

When the semester started, I revelled in the anonymity and comfort of not having my camera on. When I did have my camera on in class, speaking up was difficult — more so than in person. It felt forced and unnatural.

As Ontario and several of its major cities continually closed and reopened, my uncertainty grew. I wondered if we would ever return to in-person learning. I could not help feeling that I was missing out on the sense of community that you would typically have in person. There were countless times that I found myself smiling or laughing at something said by a professor, a TA, or a student, then feeling more alone than before as I stared at my screen and realized no one could see me. 

As the winter semester approached, I discussed this problem with one of my friends. She posed a thought-provoking question, one that would continually stay with me in all my classes: what would I do if online learning continued for months or even years? I considered that. What if I never met or communicated with the people in my classes? What if I was denying myself the ability to enhance my university experience, even if it was online?

In the synchronous classes where I felt most comfortable and camera use was optional, I began to challenge myself by turning my camera on and speaking up more. At times, it was draining and tiresome, but it helped me realize that even the professors were nervous and uncertain about this strange online world, just like the rest of us. It encouraged me to contribute more. In doing so, I finally felt like I was a part of an online community and, simultaneously, these classes became more meaningful to me.

Transitioning to adulthood from my bedroom, by Sherene Almjawer

Since I graduated high school, I’ve grasped at every excuse to delay my transition from being a dependent child to paying car insurance and calling the plumber to fix leaking faucets. I officially graduate from U of T in spring 2021, which means I’m one step closer to being an adult.

There was nothing comfortable about finishing my degree in the comfort of my own home. Trekking to campus used to give me an excuse to push myself to converse with peers and professors. “I’m already here,” I would think. “I might as well make use of some opportunities.”

Attending class through a screen added extra steps to socialization. I was supposed to network and meet potential employers at the “Making a Book” course book launch. Now I have to muster up the motivation to be the one to reach out, to create a level of familiarity that would’ve already existed if we had been in a physical classroom.

“Hi,” I imagine emailing my professor. “I’m that girl in your Zoom class with the Haikyuu icon. Please help me figure out how to function once I graduate. Thank you!”

It’s horrifying.

Looking someone in the eyes is easier in real life than on Zoom. Online, I’m forced to see my own face in a tiny square, and I’m hyperaware of how dumb I look. What if my potential employer thinks my background is stupid? What if I speak over one of my classmates? What if my internet cuts out for the fifth time that day, and I lose an opportunity or my participation grade?

At first, I was excited not to have to wake up at 6 am to catch a 9 am lecture, but staying home has only made things harder. How am I meant to become an adult in my room, surrounded by my Kirby shrine, while I psych myself up to submit my resume as if my interpersonal skills haven’t been deteriorating since the beginning of quarantine? 

The pandemic has been terrible and online learning has made things considerably worse. But in some counterintuitive way, it alleviated pressure by postponing my official debut as an adult. Now, I’m realizing, “Hey, I need to get my shit together — because once this pandemic is over, I’ll need to be ready to call the plumber and fix that leaky faucet.”

Lonely lockdown blues, by Elizabeth Snugovsky

When U of T first closed its doors because of the pandemic, I wasn’t too worried. Truthfully, I was ecstatic. It was close to the end of the semester and not having to commute an hour to school every day meant that I had more time to focus on my school work. I never dreamed that the joy I first felt toward the lockdown would melt away as lockdown continued to be extended over and over again. 

What I did not realize back in March was how much my social life depended upon routine. Before, it was easy to see my friends. We would take the same classes, grab a bite to eat, or go home together on the TTC. I have so many warm memories of meeting my friends at McCafe on College Street or Sid’s Cafe on campus. We were exhausted from our classes, but meeting up felt rejuvenating and made the long hours of studying and writing essays endurable. 

Now that we don’t share a space or a routine, I constantly have to figure out how to make the time to be with them. When we finally get together, our Zoom calls are no comparison to downtown adventures after class when we would explore different parts of Toronto, hopping from one used bookstore to another. 

The pandemic has shown me how important face-to-face interaction is. While I never enjoyed commuting, seeing my professors and TAs in person, as well as interacting with my classmates — all of whom were going through the same things as me — made attending class an enjoyable experience. All of my professors have done a wonderful job of trying to make online learning a fun experience and made themselves as available and accommodating as possible. However, I miss chatting with my friends about lecture material and assignments in between classes and during breaks. Of course, now we have Facebook groups and Discord servers for such things, but I can’t help but feel that they are hollow in comparison to what I once had. 

Now that I know what it’s like to not see anyone outside my family for weeks on end, I cannot wait to wake up unnecessarily early and rush to school once again. If U of T does open in the fall, you can be sure that I will never again complain about my commute.