After one of the strangest school years in recent history, U of T students from around the world are packing their bags once again to travel to campus for the fall 2021 semester — many for the first time ever. In particular, for most incoming second-year students, this will be the first time they’re attending in-person classes and campus events. 

To understand the kaleidoscope of emotions spinning through these students’ heads, The Varsity interviewed a number of returning second-year students about their experiences in first year and their feelings and concerns going into the 2021–2022 academic year.

Many expressed a need to readjust — not just to courses moving from online to in-person, but to their changing social lives, relationship to campus, and more. 

A long year of remote learning

Despite students’ varied backgrounds, learning styles, and circumstances, many of the students that spoke to The Varsity agreed that, while it was not ideal, their first-year experience could have been much worse. Without access to on-campus life, these students’ experiences were dictated by their remote learning experience.

Anusha Madhusudanan and Maggie Kou, the president and vice-president of the 2020–2021 UTSU First Year Council (FYC), respectively, wrote to The Varsity about how polarizing remote learning was. 

Maggie Kou is a second-year engineering student who was in the Toronto area throughout the duration of their first year. When asked about their remote learning experience, Kou wrote, “I preferred working at my own pace – I was grateful that most of my courses first semester were asynchronous so I got to work with more flexibility.” 

Many other students also appreciated the ability to create their own schedules and rewatch lectures during exam season. Some students said they even achieved a higher GPA without as many external distractions. 

However, for many international students, they did not experience the same flexibility granted to other first-year students. 

Madhusudanan, a second-year international relations and economics student, studied from her home in India last year with a time difference of nine and a half hours. 

“My first year experience was not ideal,” wrote Madhusudanan. “My academics suffered from circumstances such as having to take my finals at 4am. I was not receiving sufficient sleep because [I was balancing] classes past midnight and [waking] up in the morning to stay connected with the city I was in.”

“It was a great push that required a lot of adaptability, motivation, and positivity to get through,” admitted second-year industrial engineering major Anmol Mahajan. But, as an active member of the engineering faculty’s academic and extracurricular community, he maintains that it was not an impossible feat. 

“Working in a 12 hour time difference, I wanted to ensure I was able to make connections and wanted to push myself to try out different clubs in first-year,” wrote Mahajan. “I enjoyed being able to overcome the challenges that came [with online school] and making the connections I did with the people in the community.”

Finding community virtually

Despite their different learning experiences, Madhusudanan and Kou both agreed that their involvement in clubs and extracurriculars like the FYC were critical in shaping their year. 

Many of the students who had participated in extracurriculars last year agreed that joining these organizations helped them find a community within the often barren social landscape of online school.

Madhusudanan wrote to The Varsity that participating in extracurriculars helped her connect with upper-year students who provided her with guidance, and she was able to form valuable friendships.  

However, Kou, Madhusudanan, and the other students noted that their social life struggled throughout their first year.

“I definitely [feel] like I missed out on the social aspects [of university],” Kou wrote. “Pulling all-nighters to finish physics labs just seems sad when it’s just you, alone in your childhood bedroom.” 

The return to campus

On March 8, University of Toronto President Meric Gertler announced that the university was planning a return to in-person learning for the fall 2021 semester. 

With the first week of classes approaching, many of the students who spoke to The Varsity were excited to experience the social and academic opportunities that on-campus learning may bring in the fall semester. 

“I’m excited to explore the campus -all the spots I’ve heard about from upper years have just been myths to me so far,” wrote Kou. “Is the Brown Food Truck really as good as people say it is?!”

That is not to say that in-person learning will not come with its own set of challenges. In order to survive their first year of university, incoming second-year students had to adapt to an online format. Most of them attended lectures through Zoom — where lectures were often recorded for later viewing — and studied for exams that, for many, were open-book.

As they prepare to make the transition to in-person learning, students reported apprehension about how commuting to campus, sitting inside an actual lecture hall, and paying attention without a fast-forward button would affect their academic performance.

When asked whether he believed that in-person classes would improve the quality of learning, second-year social sciences student Noah Pedrazzoli wrote, “Yes and no. It will be interesting to see how we will readjust from online learning but so far we are all a bit used to learning off of a screen… However, I do think it’ll be a great experience to go back to in person classes.”

Students like Kou also expressed concern that, while in-person learning may be helpful for those with different learning styles, “the [university’s] accessibility accommodations for commuters, international students, and students with varying needs are a point of concern.” 

Furthermore, they wrote, “Since the structure of what it means to be ‘in-person’ varies from program to program and department to department, it can be very confusing for students of all types to navigate.” In their opinion, the administration must focus on student voices as they continue their academic planning for the upcoming year if they want to accommodate all students and demographics.

Getting reoriented                      

For many incoming second-year students, the perpetual uncertainty of the last academic year made life on campus seem extremely desirable. With their first year of in-person learning coming quickly, some wrote that they felt they needed to reorient to being a U of T student.  

“I find [it] ironic how I will be a Trinity College orientation leader in the fall but I am someone who has not had the opportunity to explore the college myself,” wrote Madhusudanan. 

Furthermore, second-year English and political science student Rachel Ponte wrote that she hopes orientation efforts will be more focused on second-year students. 

“Most of the content I have seen has been geared at first years,” wrote Ponte, later adding “I believe second years are in a very similar place… [We] are just as unfamiliar with campus, and normal university level learning as [the first-years] are.”

“Naturally I’m scared [of] COVID,” Ponte admitted. “I’m also a little nervous about the transition from online to in person [learning]… I am expecting [that] I will have to readjust again, which is difficult since I spent the last year readjusting to online learning.”

The university has introduced a number of programs and resources that specifically aim to support second-year students during what might be a confusing transition. 

Programs and services include second-year orientation events and a number of events specific to colleges and individual faculties. In addition to these services, Sidney Smith Commons’ Second-Year Learning Communities for select Arts and Sciences students can also serve as a resource for those looking to strengthen both their academic and social lives in the following year.

The UTSU has also introduced a “secondyearuoft” Instagram account, aimed at introducing incoming second-year students to the campus and each other — as the description puts it, “Making up for lost time.” The account will post events and information for second-year students to orient them with on-campus learning and life.