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Coming back or staying home: U of T students weigh the costs of online university

U of T's approach to COVID-19 draws concerns about quality of learning, university experience

Coming back or staying home: U of T students weigh the costs of online university

As we enter the fall 2020 semester, the coming months will look completely different from ever before. As U of T continued to reveal more information this summer as to what a hybrid semester would look like, with some classes that were until recently planned to be in person moving online, campus students are still uncertain as to how the year will play out. 

Between lamenting activities that normally mark the start of a fresh year and navigating multiple new platforms for classes, and without the benefit of the interpersonal connection that arises from physically attending university, students are left to weigh their options for the coming year.

Location matters — even online

Regina Angkawidjaja, a criminology and industrial relations and human resources double major, is one of U of T’s thousands of international students. As a student from Indonesia entering her second year, she was left with countless decisions on her plate in light of U of T’s decision to go hybrid in its course delivery. She was uncertain about her options and her ultimate choice of whether to stay home or come to U of T.

The Varsity initially spoke to her in early July. “It’s pretty uncertain if I will go back in the fall… I’m still waiting on whether or not I secured a residence space at my college,” Angkawidjaja wrote at the time. “The university’s ability to accommodate my housing for the fall is one of the major factors I have to consider.” 

Since Toronto is the most expensive Canadian city to live in, finding appropriate housing is crucial for international students, especially when their tuition can be up to nearly 10 times what domestic students must fork over for their education.

“Taking online classes with the same international fees feels unfair,” Angkawidjaja wrote. Although she acknowledges the additional cost that comes from locating classes to different platforms and interfaces for online learning, she doesn’t believe that online learning and in-person learning should cost the same. 

In a typical year at U of T, the cost of tuition covers not only education but also several services, such as the use of athletic centres, child care, access to general social events, maintenance of the campus, and more. In an online university setting, especially for those not returning to campus, students would benefit from few of these addendums. Though online options for some of these services are in the works, the chances of them being on par with in-person activities are slim. 

Angkawidjaja also pointed out a crucial gap that U of T appears to have overlooked in the move to hybrid learning: for students on the other side of the world, immediate location isn’t the only major factor. Time is one, too, and it influences international students even more.

“One thing that I feel the university could do better is the lack of asynchronous courses,” Angkawidjaja said in an interview with The Varsity. “A lot of the courses are synchronous. For us on the opposite side of the world, the classes are mostly between 12:00–6:00 am. That’s definitely really challenging.” 

Unsurprisingly, comparisons of U of T to other universities arise. Major institutions like the University of British Columbia are offering both “day” and “night” courses to avoid forcing international students to become nocturnal for a year. U of T’s hybrid plan is being criticized for its lack of accessibility given that the institution otherwise publicly celebrates its diverse student population.

When The Varsity caught up with Angkawidjaja recently, it learned that she has decided to stay home in Jakarta for the fall semester. A few points cinched her decision. First, her parents were concerned about her safety since she would have to fly for 24 hours, and if she caught COVID-19 during her journey, she would have to take care of herself alone in Toronto. Second, most of her friends from Jakarta are also staying home for some duration this year.

Finally, Woodsworth College could not offer her residency this year due to the limited space. However, if the situation improves, she hopes to come back to Toronto in December or January, but that still remains up in the air.

Not every major is the same

For Alana Ngo, her final year at U of T sounds nothing like what she expected. As a music education major, she will not be able to experience online learning that even comes close to a semblance of her first three years as an undergraduate.

“There’s a lot of things we can’t do — for example, large ensembles,” Ngo said. “We can do our private lessons online, but the quality [of sound] on Zoom and Google Hangouts is just not as good as being in person. I also think that as a music education major, it’s hard to do things practically, like conduct or practice teaching, because we don’t have anyone to practice with.”

Oddly enough, faculties that fundamentally depend on practicals, such as architecture and music, have either declared that all courses will be delivered online or that the information is still “to be released” and “subject to change.” 

Sending graduating students out into the world without the hands-on experience they require can deeply affect their career eligibility in the future. Students who need labs, residencies, or nursing placements are bound to have less confidence in their work if they graduate without this necessary experience. 

This isn’t just for students heading into the workforce, either. Depending on the field, some students have hands-on learning opportunities from their very first term, building a foundation for their later years in education.

With such circumstances, the quality of education will inevitably fall short of the mark this coming year. To a certain degree, many of the shortcomings are even out of the hands of the university. As every institution globally is navigating these unprecedented times, missed opportunities and lesser experiences will undoubtedly arise. However, for many students, it is the lack of transparency, a more controllable factor, that is problematic. Decisions are difficult to make when wait times for further information seem indefinite.

“I would definitely appreciate more communication as to when we would know [updates] or at what point we’d be able to enrol for courses… just a little more transparency,” Ngo said. 

Students in the Faculty of Arts & Science may be frustrated that many in-person classes have been cancelled or moved, but the volume of information released from that faculty has been great in comparison to others, possibly due to the greater volume of students enrolled. For those in smaller faculties, however, there is still little direction on what the year will look like.

Is a gap year worth it?

With all of these drawbacks, a gap year would seem to have its advantages. If the quality of education will inevitably decrease, waiting for a more normalized year could be a viable option for many. In turn, having a mental break, saving money, earning money, or learning a new hobby or skill are all options in a school-free year. 

However, for Alanna Kong, a second-year student from Vancouver studying global health and French, this idealized version of a gap year is just not possible in the world’s current economic and social climate.

“The main reason I’m returning is that I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t go back to school,” Kong said in an interview with The Varsity. “I could work, but it’s been difficult finding even entry level, minimum wage jobs at the moment, and I don’t feel comfortable working in person as I live with vulnerable family members. Remote jobs are an option, but there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to secure a position as they’re in high demand as well.”

Simply finding work and keeping busy for the year is not wholly realistic for many, especially when they live in high-density cities where jobs have become few and far between. And for many, keeping busy has become crucial.

“I could also just take a break, but I enjoy having the schedule and deadlines that classes provide,” Kong said. “I’m at my least productive and feel slightly lost without structure, and the external pressure makes me work harder. Additionally, there is social pressure from my family and, to a lesser extent, my peers to finish my degree as quickly as possible. The idea of me taking a gap year has probably never crossed my parents’ minds.”

Since the hustle and bustle of university life has been instilled constantly through our culture, keeping busy can be difficult to let go of. And if students can take synchronous courses, the schedule of classes can bring much needed structure for those who are homebound. After all, school has been a framework that many students have mentally come to depend on.

So, will online learning last?

Despite a gap year being far from perfect, the disadvantages of online learning cannot be disregarded either. Lack of interpersonal connections, difficulty in communicating clearly due to poor wi-fi signals and infrastructure, increased distractions and decreased accountability, and high fees are all issues that must be addressed when the majority of course delivery will be online.

However, having an online option may still prove useful to some students in the coming years. While in-person learning is generally favoured, no two students are the same. The money that is saved on housing, food, and a medley of other expenses can make a good trade-off for some students that want a future as free from student debt as possible. 

In looking at how online learning may affect students moving forward, Angkawidjaja offers a more hopeful take. 

“A lot of students’ mental health can be affected by [online learning],” Angkawidjaja said. “Maybe the university will come up with more resources that will help students more that can be useful in the future. For example, online mental health resources… are things that will be useful for the future.” 

As a university that is notorious for its lack of support in the mental health department, the new difficulties that students are facing may be the push that the school needs to build a more robust system. Ngo reflects that the need is greater than ever.

“I know that, since the pandemic, mental health has been a big problem for many people,” she said. “I think that the uncertainty of many things affects people poorly… many people are anxious about online learning as well. Without clear communication or accessibility resources, it’ll definitely take a toll on mental health.”

University is more than just its classes

If access to education in the classroom was the only factor at stake, it might be simpler for students to come to a satisfactory course of action for the coming year. If money is an issue, online learning is the solution; if your program does not lend itself to virtual schooling, your priority might be to grasp one of the few in-person spots within the classroom.

In reality, the university experience goes far beyond the hours one spends in the classroom. Though extra activities and experiences don’t always appear to be crucial, many students are looking for a place to make into a home for their four years of undergraduate studies. In turn, that home can either support or detract from their overall mental health.

While online learning in Canada may not be subject to the same visa crises as the neighbouring US, much of what makes up university life can no longer be this year. And while some may view life on campus as a mere addendum, Kong points out that it is often collaboration and community that leads a student into the best frame of mind to learn.

“I find it easier to stay focused when I can see other students doing the same,” Kong said. “Learning from the comfort of your home reduces travel time and is more convenient, but I miss seeing friends and classmates and being able to put names to faces.”

It’s difficult not to feel like a number in a sea of TCards when you’re in online calls for hours a day with your screen blank and your mic off. In turn, the impetus to break that awkward silence and participate is a far greater barrier.

Angkawidjaja reflected on her experience in her first year participating in multiple clubs. She pointed out how deeply important community is in school.

“Clubs allowed me to explore my identity and various interests while meeting so many different people from diverse backgrounds,” Angkawidjaja wrote. “I was fortunate enough to meet most of my closest friends through these clubs. It has impacted my university life through teaching me that focusing on my academics wasn’t everything.”

“Before I came to UofT, my identity was mostly anchored on my grades and achievements,” Angkawidjaja wrote. “Ironically, coming into such a large university filled with competitiveness, I’ve learned that my identity and self-worth cannot be anchored on something prone to fluctuation and volatility.” 

While the University of Toronto Students’ Union is slowly releasing information on what the community on campus may look like, the information is still vague. Though a “Clubs Friday” is on the horizon, what that actually entails remains unannounced. Learning from others, building relationships, and learning what you love through hands-on experience is going to be difficult this year.

Ultimately, though students come from varying years, majors, and home locations — and have different ultimate goals — the overall consensus is that options are limited. And in reality, this year will most likely not offer everything that students need or want in the long run. Waiting can be worth it for some, while taking a year off cannot be justified for others.

There will be a learning curve and an opportunity for growth no matter what path a student chooses. University may be far from perfect this year, but this is a year for growth and learning to navigate adverse circumstances, which, ideally, are lessons that students can carry far beyond U of T.

In Photos: Orientation Week 2018

U of T welcomes the class of 2022

In Photos: Orientation Week 2018


U of T St. George defends two-day fall break

Policy maintained in spite of increasing number of Ontario schools implementing week-long breaks

U of T St. George defends two-day fall break

This year marks the first year that Carleton University, Brock University, MacMaster University, and Western University will be providing their students with a fall break. The trend of introducing a second break in the school year comes in part from student leaders demanding an additional period of mental rest, similar to the reading week that already exists in the winter term for undergraduate students.



These four universities contribute to a total of 11 out of Ontario’s 20 publicly funded universities that now have the second break. Within the city of Toronto, York University provides three days, and Ryerson University provides a full week . While an increasing number of schools seem to be adopting the concept, the lengths of the breaks vary between universities, and even within U of T’s own three campuses. U of T Mississauga (UTM) has no designated break at all, whereas U of T St. George (UTSG) has a two-day break, and U of T Scarborough (UTSC) receives a four-day break following Thanksgiving Monday.

According to both the University of Toronto administration and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), many studies have shown that a fall reading week boosts the morale of students and offers relief from the “pressure cooker” environment of university. For this reason, an increasing number of universities are implementing a fall break. But why not five days instead of just two?

Ali says that the two-day break was created to enhance the student experience, and that two days is enough to achieve a boost in student morale. The two-day fall break originated in 2009, when the university’s administration reformed its previous five-day policy. Dominic Ali, a media representative for the university, stated: “The changes that took place in 2009 allowed students to better prepare for their exams by having more time to meet with professors, review material, or hold study groups. These changes also allowed the summer session to have the same number of instruction weeks as the fall and winter session.” In essence, the university’s argument is that the two-day break is a compromise to allow for mental reprieve and time to catch up on work while aligning the summer, fall, and winter sessions to the same time frame.

The UTSU disagrees with this position, saying that if some schools can reasonably have five-day breaks, so too should the St. George campus. UTSU president Munib Sajjad noted that the university used to have a five-day fall break, but this was changed to a two-day break in 2009, around the same time that many other schools instituted the break in the first place. Sajjad explained that the UTSU believes that: “Part of the reason for this trend is that institutions are realizing how important it is to address mental health issues proactively.”

The UTSU also cites studies that show that a five-day fall reading week would be particularly effective in improving students’ mental health and general happiness. It was, however, unable to provide the specific studies in question.

When asked why UTSG does not have a five-day, Ali did not give a reason, but cited the changes that occurred over the years, saying: “In 2009, a two-day fall break and a two-day December study period were introduced that parallel the breaks in second term, plus a commitment to end the fall/winter session by April 30. Consequently, the April study week has been reduced to a two-day study break.” By implementing a two-day fall break, the administration has therefore cut down the amount of study time available for students in the winter term between the end of classes and the beginning of exams. Ali did not comment on why it was deemed necessary to have a full week break in the winter, but not one for the fall term.

Ali further stated that the Scarborough campus has a longer break because “Academic schedules [sessional dates] are set independently by division, since different departments have different needs and conditions. A few years ago, few schools had fall breaks at all. Schools with longer breaks tend to start earlier or have more compressed exam schedules.”

Representatives of the UTSU find this response inadequate, and feel that it is not unreasonable to expect a five-day reading week for all three campuses at U of T. The union has met with the university this year about the issue, but did not receive a positive response. “The university administrators seem reluctant to consider this option,” stated Sajjad. “If the administration can see how important this is for students on one campus, we are confident we can show them that it is equally important for the other two.”



Question: How do you feel about the length of U of T’s mid-term break this year?


Jaskaran | First-year, University College

“We only have two days! I mean, that’s horrible.”



Albert | First-year, St. Michael’s College

“That’s horrible! I have two mid terms right after”



Jo Anne | Grad Student, OISE


“I think it should be at least a week (because) we have a week in the spring.”



Chris | First-year, University College

“I’m satisfied with a two-day break, maybe three days.”

U of T responds to Loretto investigation

Following two weeks of silence, U of T answers some questions on controversial all-women’s residence

U of T responds to Loretto investigation

Earlier this month, in an investigation by The Varsity, former residents at Loretto College raised concerns about the college’s policies and its residence atmosphere. Loretto is a private, all-female residence affiliated with St. Michael’s College (SMC). The Varsity spoke to former residents who were uncomfortable with the conservative policies and tone of the residence and the requirement that they formally agree to live in a “Christian academic community.” Under the University of Toronto’s residence guarantee policy, some students also faced a choice between living in Loretto and not living in residence at all. The university has now clarified its position on some of the questions raised by the investigation, although significant questions remain unanswered.

Michael Kurts, assistant vice-president of strategic communications, was asked whether women could have been placed in Loretto without requesting it in the first place. Kurts explained that there are higher demands for particular residences than can be met. When this is the case, Housing Services identifies other residences that have open spaces, and offers students a place within these alternative residences. “This means that any student may be offered a space in a residence that they did not select as their choice. This would be as true for Loretto as any other U of T residence,” he said. If a student chooses to decline this offer, they are placed on a waitlist for their first choice residence. Kurts acknowledged that the likelihood of getting a spot in one’s first choice residence after being placed on a waitlist was “very low.” A number of the girls interviewed during The Varsity’s investigation said they felt uncomfortable signing the residence agreement but were told that no other option was available. Some elected not to sign the residence agreement and found off-campus housing.

Kurts further clarified that all U of T policies are in effect at Loretto College, as it is affiliated with the university, and that while they do not have an exact number of girls who did not select Loretto as their first choice, “the number is small, and likely fewer than five.” The Varsity interviewed more than a dozen girls, who entered across multiple years, and indicated that they did not select Loretto as a first choice.

The SMC residence office said that all Arts & Science students who are a part of SMC are offered both a spot in Loretto and a spot in SMC proper, but the same does not seem to be true for professional faculty students, who are dealt with separately. Many of the engineering students interviewed during the course of the investigation claimed they were told they would be offered spots in both Loretto and SMC. However, when they were offered spots in Loretto and inquired about the alternate offer,  they were told none was available.

When asked what would happen if a student was uncomfortable with the religious aspects of living at Loretto, Kurts said that an attempt would be made to find another space. However, he warned: “Most often than ever, our residences are full to capacity and there may be no other spaces available.”

Meanwhile, Angela Convertini, dean of residence at Loretto College, said she felt that no students were forced into Loretto. When asked about why the residence agreement was not made available online, Convertini explained that as a  smaller residence, Loretto does not have access to a webmaster and therefore is unable to maintain a separate website containing its residence agreement.

Convertini claimed women have as much knowledge about Loretto as any other residence: “We have people come by and tour the residence, look over the residence agreement, and understand what they’re getting into. Many of the women quoted in the article never came to us with any problems…they were made fully aware of the nature of the residence and the environment in which they were choosing to live.”

Change to residence guarantee needed in light of Loretto

U of T needs to acknowledge Loretto's religious character

Change to residence guarantee needed in light of Loretto

Earlier this month, The Varsity published an investigative story about Loretto College, a private, all-female, religious residence on campus associated with St. Michael’s College (SMC). The piece (“Christian residence only option for some,” October 7) sheds some light on an otherwise little-known residence on campus and the significant problems its policies are causing for some students. Most alarmingly, U of T’s policies seem to be forcing some students to choose between living in an actively Christian residence and not living in residence at all.

To live in Loretto, students must agree to follow policies that “foster participation and involvement in a supportive Christian academic community,” the mandate set out in the “philosophy statement” of Loretto College’s residence agreement. The agreement goes on to specify a number of policies that are explicitly intended to create a religiously-oriented community.

Former Loretto residents told The Varsity that college staff promoted what one student described as, “a type of conservative personal decorum.” While the residence agreement also prohibits discrimination, it is not surprising that many students were uncomfortable living in an overtly religious residence.

Loretto is owned and staffed in part by the Loretto Sisters, an order of Roman Catholic nuns. U of T has yet to clarify the arrangement between the sisters, SMC, and the university. In its response to the details in the story, the university characterized Loretto as having “religious roots,” a point reiterated in subsequent comments from the administration. This is an accurate way to describe several of U of T’s college residences, but unacceptably understates the role of religion at Loretto. SMC, for example, has religious roots — it was founded as a religious institution and retains some religious affiliation and traditions.

Loretto College, on the other hand, is owned and operated by a religious order. Its students must agree to “adhere” to Christian values. Residents must follow policies that are overtly intended to promote a religious lifestyle, if not the actual practice of religion. Loretto does not simply have “religious roots,” it is an actively religious institution, making it very different from every other residence affiliated with U of T. Accordingly, U of T’s residence policies should not treat it like any other residence, especially when this places students in very difficult situations.

U of T widely advertises its residence guarantee program, and many students accept offers of enrolment at the university on the understanding that they will be able to live in residence in their first year. U of T does not, of course, guarantee students a place in their preferred residence. Students can be placed in Loretto, as they can be placed in any residence, without requesting to live there. Under the program, students who turn down their first offer are not guaranteed a second one.

It is understandable that U of T cannot accommodate every incoming student’s personal preferences about residences. There is, however, a difference between preferences based on location or style and an aversion to living in a religious institution. The Varsity spoke to several students who faced a choice between living in a religious residence they were uncomfortable with and trying to find off-campus housing in a new city months before the start of term. It is unacceptable that U of T would put incoming students, many of whom are living on their own for the first time, in such a dilemma.

Information about Loretto’s strict and unusual residence policies is not easy to find. While many other residences on campus make their rules clear on their website, Loretto does not. Where a comprehensive description of expected behaviour should be, Loretto only describes itself as an all-female residence, with no mention of its religious character.

While it is perhaps unfair to criticize Loretto’s residence policies for trying to establish and protect a religious community on campus, the grievances raised by students who were not aware of the extra requirements to living there must be addressed. All the residences at U of T have policies and agreements that students are required to follow. These account for things like the presence of hotplates and other dangerous items in rooms, quiet hours for study, and, in some buildings and colleges, mandatory meal plans and hours. The difference in Loretto’s case is that the residence’s policies are not transparent and that they are religiously inspired.

The Varsity does not question whether or not Loretto — or any other institution on campus — should be free to express its religious affiliation or enforce rules that are informed by its philosophy. Rather, we question whether or not university administrators are doing all that they can to accommodate incoming students looking for residence placements.

The residence guarantee policy is undoubtedly a good one; it provides for students coming from outside the city who would otherwise be forced to find a place to live off-campus. However, it is obvious that U of T should reexamine the program in light of the fact that some students are being placed in environments in which they are not comfortable, without the opportunity to make informed choices. Many students interviewed for our story indicated that Loretto was the only option offered to them, and many said that they were largely unaware of what living there entailed. It is also disconcerting that the university was either unable or unwilling to relocate students with substantive concerns about their treatment at Loretto. It is clear that in many ways Loretto is fundamentally different than other residence options on campus; so far, the university has refused to see this difference.

Does Loretto need to reexamine its policies? No; as a private residence, administrators are entitled to foster any community they like based on whatever philosophical mandate they choose. Does U of T need to do more to help the students relying on the residence guarantee when they find themselves in a difficult situation? Absolutely. U of T must acknowledge that many students may be deeply uncomfortable in a residence run according to Christian values. It must be forthcoming with incoming students about the unusual aspects of Loretto, or any other residence with unusual policies, and it must offer residence alternatives to students who do not want to live in a religious community.

Of course, many of Loretto College’s residents are happy to be there and are thriving in the unique community the residence offers. Loretto accommodates female students of all faiths and backgrounds quite happily and with mostly positive reviews, as was clear in The Varsity’s original article. For the small, unhappy, minority of students, however, more needs to be done.

Christian residence only option for some

The Varsity investigates Loretto College, a private residence affiliated with St. Michael’s College

Christian residence only option for some

The year she graduated from high school, Emma Sexton was accepted to Engineering at the University of Toronto with the usual residence guarantee. She grew up in a small town in the Niagara region and knew little about what to expect in terms of university residence or Toronto life. Excited about the prospect of living at her school of choice, Sexton applied to New College and University College, and didn’t think any more about the matter for several months. Sexton received several emails saying she would hear about residency in late June, but the date came and went without a residence offer. Finally, just six days before the payment deadline, she was offered a space at Loretto College, a private, all-female residence affiliated with St. Michael’s College. Sexton says she was “disappointed about being put in Loretto,” but took the spot because she was not offered an alternative.

After moving into Loretto, Sexton quickly learned that it was not like most other residences at U of T. In the Loretto residence agreement, the philosophy statement reads: “Life at Loretto College focuses on participation and involvement in a supportive Christian academic community.” The agreement goes on to state that the College has the right to make policies that “implement the philosophy of the College,” but that discrimination will not be tolerated. Students are required to sign the agreement, agreeing to “adhere” to the college’s philosophy.

Over the past three months, The Varsity spoke with more than fifteen current and former Loretto students; although their experiences differed, many of them expressed discomfort with the college’s unique policies and residence life.


Students uncomfortable with “conservative” residence life

Engineering student Emma Sexton took a spot at Loretto after not being offered an alternative. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Engineering student Emma Sexton took a spot at Loretto after not being offered an alternative. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Sexton described an experience when she signed out a male guest 2 minutes after curfew, and the porter said to her: “I signed you out at 10:00 — otherwise they talk.” Sexton recalled that this experience made her feel strange. “I assumed ‘they’ were the staff. It made me uncomfortable that I was going to be perceived differently because of two minutes,” she said.

Many students took issue with the restrictions on when men can be in certain parts of the college. The residence agreement from 2012 states that male visitors are not permitted in residence rooms between Monday and Wednesday and are only allowed during certain hours on other days. The fact that men are restricted to certain hours is publicly available on the U of T Housing website, but is not available on the Loretto webpage.

Caitlin Scinocca, another student who did not apply to live at Loretto, described her discomfort with this policy: “The fact that there were male visiting hours really bothered me,” she explained. “If I’m paying good money for a room, at least let my friends come hang out during frosh week, or let my dad up to the room.” Julia Kemp, an exchange student, said that she felt the policy was far too restrictive. “I understand that U of T needs a space where it is all-girls due to demand and religious reasons. However, if I have a single room I see no reason whatsoever why I should not be allowed a male in my room,” she said, adding that she “felt like she was treated like a girl in a boarding school.”

Another student, who lived in Loretto for two years and requested anonymity, said that these regulations are “ostensibly in accordance with Catholic doctrine to discourage any kind of fornication. Nobody really knows why, and I’ve never gotten a straight answer. That is all fine and dandy — unless of course you aren’t Catholic.”

The same student stated that she felt uncomfortable with what she perceived as a conservative environment maintained by the college administration. “There is a type of conservative personal decorum that students are somewhat implicitly encouraged to maintain,” she said. “It’s not uncommon to receive comments about so-called provocative behaviour or inquiries about your whereabouts at social events.”


Some have no other residence option

A number of students reported that, like Sexton, they were offered residence at Loretto without having requested it and were not given an alternate offer. Elizabeth*, a second-year engineering student, chose to decline Loretto’s offer because she felt uncomfortable with the residence agreement. She found off-campus housing on her own, although finding a place in Toronto was “incredibly stressful” as she only had between June and September to find one. “I wanted to live in residence, I just didn’t want to live in a residence so different from my idea of what university should be,” she said. Julia Kemp, a 2012-2013 exchange student, was keen to live in residence but had trouble securing a spot until August. “[Housing Services] told me they could offer me one room in an all girls residence called Loretto. I was so desperate for campus I accepted without much research into it at all,” she said. She added that Loretto’s website does not provide a comprehensive description of its policies. The online descriptions of Loretto — both on its webpage and on the U of T housing site — state that it is an all-female residence, but do not mention the religious philosophy of the college.

U of T guarantees a residence offer to every full-time, first-year undergraduate student. The Varsity asked Michael Kurts, U of T’s assistant vice-president, strategic communications and marketing, whether or not a girl can be placed in Loretto without having requested a spot there. Kurts stated that the university’s housing policy does not guarantee students a place in their first choice of residence. “When we cannot meet a student’s priority choices, Housing Services contacts all colleges who have space available to make an offer. Many students in the residences were offered a place in a residence they might not have applied to.” He insisted that these issues are “a case of supply and demand,” and that Loretto is “no different than any other residence,” in this respect. Kurts added that Loretto welcomes students of every religion, despite what he described as its “religious roots.” Kurts did not answer a number of questions about Loretto, including what ratio of girls who are placed in Loretto actually applied there.  He indicated that he would respond next week.

Angela Convertini, dean of women at Loretto College, was surprised to hear that students were given the choice between a place at Loretto and no spot in residence at all. She claimed that all students are offered a choice between St. Mike’s and Loretto, and that everyone who lives in Loretto does so by choice. All of the girls spoken to for this story who did not apply to Loretto claimed Loretto was presented to them as the only option.

Convertini stated that students apply to live at Loretto, and if there are still spots left after the application process, they inform U of T housing — who then fill the spaces. “We would never think that someone was forced into living at Loretto… We send them the actual residence agreement, they have a choice — they can go to a co-ed, they can go to us, we really believe that the people who come here enjoy themselves,” said Convertini.

Covertini, along with some other members of the Loretto College staff, is a member of the Loretto Sisters — an order of Roman Catholic nuns. According to the Loretto Sisters’ website, the college is owned and operated by the sisters and “affiliated” with U of T through St. Michael’s College. Students told The Varsity that some sisters live in a separate area of the residence.

Kurts also did not comment on the degree to which U of T’s policies apply at Loretto, given that it is a private residence. When asked to comment on whether or not a girl who is uncomfortable with Loretto’s religious policies would be offered an alternate residence, he emphasized that the residence welcomes students of all faiths.


Many students enjoy tight-knit community

Shams Al Obaidi, a third-year don at Loretto College, felt that the tight-knit sorority atmosphere was an important part of her university experience. For Al Obaidi, the other residences are too large to be able to connect with other students.

With a community of around 130 students, Loretto allows residents to get to know each other on a much more personal level, according to Al Obaidi. She further stated that international students feel particularly welcome in Loretto. “I came all the way from Qatar, and it was my first year in Canada. It was really nice to come all the way here and feel at home.” Al Obaidi also stated that: “Loretto welcomes all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and religions.” For example, she recalls a time when a sister told her to attend the college’s weekly masses, despite being of a different religion, because “all are welcome.”

Al Obaidi also believes that Loretto College’s male policy is not unduly restrictive. She points out that men are able to visit the main floor and the lower lounge at any time, and that the restrictions on male visitors are “more of a courtesy to others” than anything else.

Convertini stressed that the residence tries to be inclusive of residents from diverse backgrounds. “We like to think that U of T provides a whole continuum of residence experiences for its students and we’re just one of the choices students have,” she explained. “While we’re a traditional Catholic dorm, we’ve had Jewish girls, Protestant girls, Muslim girls — girls from every faith, and it’s a very welcoming environment,” she said.


With files from Madeleine Taylor

*Last name withheld at the individual’s request.

Rescheduled Trinity College orientation event costs $563 per person

Eleven students attend rescheduled Toronto Island event intended for 475

Trinity College’s Orientation Week event “Island Day!” cost $6200 for a turnout of 11 students. The event was advertised as a fun day to relax on the beach, play games, and go to Centreville, with lunch included. Originally scheduled to take place on the afternoon of Saturday, September 7, Island Day! was rained out and rescheduled for September 27. The event was to provide food, round-trip transportation, and space on the island for 475 attendees. On the rescheduled day, only 11 people showed up. Island Day! was one of the most expensive events of Trinity College’s Orientation Week.

Allison Spiegel, co-chair of Trinity Orientation Week, says that the planning committee had its hands tied with the contract signed with Centre Island. Alyssa Volk, a representative of Centre Island, says that according to the island’s policy, no portion of the deposit is refunded with a cancellation request less than two weeks prior to the event. A full refund is only given when an event is cancelled six weeks prior; Volk adds that the contract signed by Trinity’s Orientation coordinators clearly outlined this policy.

Spiegel says that the committee had explored other options, such as saving the voucher for an end of year party, or using the voucher for next year’s Orientation Week. However, Centre Island’s rain insurance policy does not carry over to the next season. After conferring with administration, Spiegel insists that the best solution was to do a later event. The rescheduled date was decided upon due to its congruence with Trinity College’s social calendar, and an attempt was made to factor in the weather. According to Spiegel, the change of date was advertised through multiple forums, including an email to every Orientation Week registrant and postings on the Trinity College Class of ‘17 Facebook page.

A trip to Centre Island is a regular on the list of Orientation Week activities for many colleges, as it provides an opportunity for students to interact with upper years in an off-campus setting. Benjamin Crase, male head of college at Trinity, defends the choice of event — saying that by voting in favour of the Island Day! event last year, Trinity students made it clear that they were interested. When asked about the low turnout, Crase said that once students are out of “Orientation Week mode,” it is difficult to get large numbers of students to attend off-campus events. Orientation Week leaders, executives, student heads, and dons who would have been at the original event were not obligated to attend, since it was outside of the dates outlined in the original contract.

When asked if she predicts that Trinity will attempt the event for next year’s Orientation Week, Spiegel says that she hopes they will. According to Spiegel, events like Island Day are always a gamble, and there is an inherent risk in planning Orientation Week events of any kind. Spiegel maintains that the originally planned event would have been successful. However, “rolling with the punches” is what Orientation Week is all about, she said. Trinity’s Orientation Week is funded exclusively through participation fees paid separately from student fees.

Dissecting the Insider Pass

UTSU-offered discount card contains almost no discounts not available for free

Dissecting the Insider Pass

Earlier this month, an investigation by The Varsity revealed that the Insider Pass sold by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) offered discounts that were already offered to students for free. This week, a reporter from The Varsity purchased an Insider Pass from the UTSU to investigate the benefits that are being offered. For $20, a student receives a piece of photo identification labelled as the Insider Pass, in addition to a “survival kit.” The pass itself displays the UTSU logo and is labelled as: “Your official Insider Pass into the University of Toronto’s Community Clubs and Campus Events.” However, the International Student Identity Card (ISIC) logo is also clearly displayed on the card, giving the impression that the UTSU pass is an ISIC card with additional UTSU benefits. The ISIC card, which is available to all students for free at the UTSU office, already offers most of the discounts advertised by the Insider Pass, such as a $10 discount at The Body Shop with purchases over $20. When The Varsity visited The Body Shop, employees only acknowledged the ISIC logo but did not comment on the validity of the Insider Pass. However, discounts that the ISIC already offers are advertised on the UTSU website as exclusive to Insider Pass holders, including discounts for The Body Shop, WestJet, and Greyhound.

At present, no definitive list of businesses that offer benefits with the Insider Pass is available. Students can see the discounts available with the Insider Pass on a poster displayed at the UTSU office and on their Orientation website. Both sources advertise the following benefits: discounts for the UTSU Unity Ball and Culture Show, the Body Shop, WestJet, Greyhound, the annual Montreal Reading Week trip, as well as the UTSU water bottle and survival kit — the only discounts exclusive to the pass are ones that pertain to UTSU events. Other than the advertised UTSU events and discounts that are already available to students, the pass’s benefits have yet to be announced.

UTSU president Munib Sajjad stated through email, “The discounts to known UTSU events have been spelled out, but events are also created throughout the year by students, which is why it is not as yet definitive.” Sajjad mentioned that discounts available outside of university events are still being developed “The ISIC discounts are fully listed on the ISIC Canada Website. The discounts that are not available with the ISIC are all discounts that pertain to UTSU-specific events, in addition to discounts that are currently being worked out with local businesses who have offered to be a part of the program, (these will include yoga studios near campus, theatres near campus and other locally-focused discounts).” The names of the businesses have not been specified.

Though the Insider Pass duplicates free discounts, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) does not find this problematic. Hildah Otieno, a spokesperson for the CFS said, “We have partnered with other universities in the past to combine the ISIC card with other services the student unions can offer. At the University of Ottawa we helped them plan an ISIC card that also involved their bus plan.” When asked to comment on the cost of the pass for the limited amount of services, Otieno could only say that while the CFS helped with the idea of the pass, the UTSU is an autonomous organization and that the actual putting together of the pass was outside of the CFS’ realm of control. “We do not believe that it creates a two tiered system,” commented Otieno, emphasizing that the ISIC card is available for free and that purchasing the Insider Pass is entirely optional. Some U of T student leaders have criticized the pass for setting up a “two-tiered” system.

The UTSU’s advertising for the pass is also a potential source of confusion. The UTSU Orientation website refers to the pass as an “Orientation Insider Pass,” and events for which it advertises exclusive access are all during Frosh Week. The pass seems to be targeted specifically towards first-year students. These events include the chance to meet and greet rapper Lupe Fiasco at the Frosh Concert, “a chance to arrive in style by limo” to the Guvernment Afterparty, and a chance to win a free meal at the UTSU Street Festival. However, these benefits have not been available since the end of Frosh Week. Sajjad said that the pass is targeted towards first-year students with the intention to get them involved with UTSU events, “It is our hope that this pass will help first year students save some money, and get plugged in to some campus events and the community at large.”


The Contents


1). Wall calendar
2). UTSU Planner
3). Pen
4). Highlighter
5). Shrimp crackers
6). Coffee cup
7). Emergen-C
8). Gummy bears
9). Scotiabank promotion
10). UTSU waterbottle
11). Princeton review promotion
12). Zipcar promotion
13). Sammy’s promotion
14). Bookmark
15). Clubs directory
16). Tea Emporium promotion
17). Canada’s Wonderland coupon
18). UTSU fabric bag


The Fine Print

— Anyone that creates a Scotiabank debit account gets five free movies. This can be found on their website and at any Scotiabank branch.

— The Sammy’s coupon for a free drink was offered in Frosh Kits and when asked, Sammy’s had no knowledge of it being used in the Insider Pass kits saying only: “we’re trying to get rid of the coupons.”

— The $15 Zipcar discount is for York students. No comparable offers exists for U of T.

— The Princeton Review flyer offering discount codes for their services can also be picked up at the UTSU office.

— The Tea Emporium discount is offered to all students. A TCard is accepted as a valid form of ID. A representative did not know what the Insider Pass was when asked.

— The agenda, clubs directory, water bottle and travel mug are all distributed in frosh kits. UTSU President Munib Sajjad has repeatedly denied that Insider Pass contents include excess frosh kit items.

— The UTSU advertises a number of discounts available with the pass, including a $10 discount at The Body Shop for purchases over $20 and a 25 per cent discount on Greyhound bus tickets within Canada. Both discounts are available with the presentation of a TCard.

— Other discounts found on the Insider Pass website are available to students with ISIC cards, available free of charge to UTSU members

— The ISIC offers students 109 discounts in Toronto alone. At present, the Insider Pass website identifies four specific non-UTSU event related discounts, all also offered by the ISIC. The UTSU has repeatedly declined requests to provide a complete list of discounts offered by the Insider Pass, including the amount of the discount on UTSU events.