Transitioning from high school to university can be a challenging process — a process that’s made even more difficult when the transition is online. I remember daydreaming about conducting chemistry experiments in a lab coat and dissecting mouse brains, before U of T announced its decision to go completely online following the COVID-19 lockdowns

What I initially considered a great disappointment turned out to be a unique first-year experience filled with lessons of resilience, patience, and growth. As someone who’s grown from a timid high school graduate to a confident university student, here are my personal reflections on the experiences my peers and I had as first-year online life science students at U of T. 

A lively mind needs an active routine 

A decrease in physical activity was definitely one of the most distinct characteristics of my time during online school. Out of curiosity, I turned to the science literature and to my peers in order to gather information on how exercise fared during the pandemic. 

I conducted a short survey on a cohort of 23 science students going into their second year of study, asking about their lifestyle changes during their virtual first year. Less than 10 per cent of the group reported spending more time on physical activities during the school year compared to the time they typically spent on exercise before the pandemic. More than 95 per cent of respondents indicated that they had adopted a more sedentary lifestyle over the academic year. The results of the survey seem to be in agreement with other researchers’ findings. 

A recent Spanish study found there was “an increase in sitting time” and a “reduction in the amount of time spent on physical activity” among university students confined to their homes. The study also mentioned, that in the long term, a sedentary lifestyle and an inactive routine can lead to bad health outcomes and even shorten life expectancy.

To sleep or not to sleep 

One of the major things that the lockdown and online school schedules disrupted was sleep. Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule was especially difficult for students living in various time zones around the world and tuning into synchronous lectures at late hours of the night and early hours of the morning. One of the respondents, Tehnish Paramiswaran, commented that since they were in Malaysia, they felt like they were living a “night life” because all their classes were from 8:00 pm to 8:00 am. 

A part of the survey asked students to summarize the quality of their sleep during online learning. The majority of respondents indicated changes in their sleep patterns, with 64 per cent finding themselves sleeping more and 27 per cent noticing a decrease in their sleep times. Only two people reported no change in their sleep schedules. These results are in accordance with a study conducted in Italy on the impact of COVID-19 on the sleep quality of university students and staff. 

Researchers observed “poor quality of sleep and poor sleep hygiene during COVID-19 lockdown” in both students and staff, although the impact was worse on students. In addition, the study noted that alongside disrupted sleep, the lockdown caused more emotional distress in students than in university staff. 

This observation is reflected in the responses of my fellow students. One respondent, Xinyue Zhu, wrote in an email, “While I had previously imagined first year to be filled with opportunities of meeting new friends and enjoying my independence away from home, my first year was instead full of confusion, anxiety, and isolation from my peers.”

I also experienced feelings of loneliness and doubt during my supposedly fun-filled first year. Regardless, I realized the significance of maintaining my wellness — both physical and mental — to academic success. Pulling all-nighters, overconsumption of coffee, and staring at screens all day may be useful in last-minute final preparations, but these practices are detrimental to individual well-being in the long term.

Finding a sense of community 

The thriving academic community that I envisioned was more three-dimensional than the one I experienced. The friendly conversations on a flat laptop screen with people over Zoom simply could not replace the depth of in-person connection. I could sense a kind of intrinsic barrier for human interaction in the online learning space. My feelings were further confirmed by Theodora Tang, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Arts & Science, who wrote in an email about their first-year experience, saying that the solidarity they had with their peers cannot be replicated over an internet connection.

Despite the difficulty of engaging in discussions with my classmates, I challenged myself to unmute my microphone and turn on my camera during breakout discussions in online classes. On some occasions, I was the only one talking for the duration of the discussion. I soon realized that many of my classmates were simply waiting for someone to speak first before they would unmute themselves and join the conversation. 

The same situation occurred in study groups and group project meetings. I was often amazed by the insight and critical thinking skills my peers had to offer. Although developing good individual study skills is important, I discovered that many precious learning opportunities come from teamwork. 

Online tutorials and practicals may sound unappealing — I thought so myself — but the small class sizes offered a chance to pose questions to my TAs and develop communication skills in a wide variety of subjects. A sense of community — or the closest manifestation of it — can arise from taking the initiative by pressing that unmute button.

To all the online instructors I’ve met so far  

It is funny to remember times when I imagined university professors as stern and prim scholars who cared about nothing but their research. I am very grateful and indebted to all the instructors who proved me wrong. 

I spoke with Professor Mayes-Tang from the Department of Mathematics, who shared her perspective on online teaching during the pandemic. Not only did the pedagogical and technical aspects of planning online classes on have to undergo intensive makeovers, but instructors were also having a hard time fostering connections with students. Mayes-Tang noted that there was an absence of social interactions in the classroom, which affected students and professors alike. “The vast majority of faculty do care and we all show it in different ways, but it’s difficult for everyone,” she said.

I was particularly touched by the determination, care, and effort that every instructor and faculty member dedicated to teaching over the course of the pandemic. I could feel the dedication from my instructors to impart knowledge and make a meaningful difference in my monumental transition from secondary to university education. 

Looking ahead 

To study science is to take part in the self-correcting process of finding evidence to support the explanations of phenomena in the physical world. There would be no breakthroughs by conforming to the status quo of research. The enchantment of science, to me, lies in the inconceivable possibilities waiting to be discovered. 

If you asked me to give advice to incoming students as a survivor of online university, I would say: never forget your passion for learning, persist through your struggles, and resist the temptation of that extra shot of espresso.