Opinion: Travelling home during a pandemic only adds to the fear and anxiety

The burden of uncertainty faced by international students

Opinion: Travelling home during a pandemic only adds to the fear and anxiety

On March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would close its borders to non-essential travel. He later announced that it would remain open to international students. The sheer scale and suddenness of Trudeau’s announcement meant that anything was possible. 

At that moment, the preventative measure didn’t affect me personally, but it was nevertheless abrupt and unexpected.

Fast forward 24 hours later, and I had packed all of my things and prepared to board a 14-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean to Bahrain — with a 20-hour layover in Dubai. 

Everything was chaotic. I ended up missing some of my online classes, but that was the least of my concerns. I was primarily worried about getting home. Navigating a pandemic places an additional burden on international students, whose sense of belonging is threatened as the world shuts down.

Trudeau’s announcement created room for greater uncertainty than my family and I had anticipated. After all, wasn’t the situation better in Canada? Wasn’t it less dire than in the US or UK, where my school friends were? Ostensibly, yes. But, what could come next? Shutting down outbound travel? A complete lockdown? 

It is incredibly difficult to make reasoned decisions when your position as a visa-carrying foreign student is at stake and changing by the hour. For those of us who are international students and have no family or relatives in Canada, the prospect of getting stuck by yourself on a different continent for an indefinite length of time is scary. 

This is not so much a question of being safe as it is of being separated.

This precariousness of the situation was apparent on my flight. Right before it took off, the government of Mauritius closed down its borders to all commercial flights. There were a handful of passengers on the aircraft whose final destination was Mauritius, and the crew had to make arrangements to escort them off the plane and locate their luggage. 

The resulting two-hour delay was ample time for me to reflect upon the perilously changing circumstances that we are currently facing — for me to reflect on the fact that those who left the plane could have been acting as fast as they could with the information they had. Yet, they fell prey to circumstance nevertheless — and many international students did too. 

Other than the emotional and situational burden of these uncertain times and having to make swift decisions without knowing the consequences, there is a real financial burden that international students may not be ready for. Booking a flight to the opposite side of the Earth incurs a potentially devastating invoice, especially when travel is both seriously limited and in especially high demand.

International travel itself is becoming increasingly restricted and unpredictable. Certainly, these measures are necessary in order to curb the spread of the virus, but they place international students, like myself, in a dangerously awkward position. 

After my layover in Dubai, there was some confusion as to whether or not my next flight would actually go to Bahrain. This was based on a rumour, but it sparked a serious dilemma on my part. If Bahrain shut down its borders, I wouldn’t be able to go home, and I wouldn’t have been able to return to Canada. 

The mere fact that I found myself in a position to contemplate this dilemma shows that there are things international students have to consider that are particularly burdensome. I entertained the notion that my passport, which validates my citizenship and existence, might not get me anywhere. In a crisis where everyone is feeling anxious for their health and safety, I was worried about becoming displaced. 

Under ordinary circumstances, I would go to India, where I am a citizen, but on that very day, India announced that it was blocking all international flights for a week. Had I been unable to board that flight to Bahrain, I would be stuck in a limbo of international borders, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. No one wants to be him, but under the dystopian reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems eerily plausible.

Despite how dangerous it was and still is to travel internationally, I had to leave. The fact that myself and other international students still felt the compulsion to get on a plane, in spite of everything, is testament to the essentiality of being at home in a time of global crisis. 

Stuti Roy is a second-year Political Science student at Victoria College.

Opinion: Students seeking to make an impact should volunteer locally, not abroad

The shortcomings of voluntourism

Opinion: Students seeking to make an impact should volunteer locally, not abroad

We’re often told that we must develop into global citizens as the world becomes a global village. In trying to gain this global perspective, many students choose to volunteer abroad in low-income countries. They find that these experiences are eye-opening and meaningful, and give them insight into inequalities around the world.

U of T encourages students to go on a variety of volunteer missions. In the medical field, these opportunities can range from a dentistry outreach program in Uganda — a yearly program that collaborates with not-for-profit organizations to provide dental services in the Ugandan countryside — to an ophthalmology project in Costa Rica.

Even outside of medicine, the placements are diverse: students can assist in soup kitchens in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, or help hospitals with basic tasks such as triage. U of T also has a scholarship that provides students with a course on teaching English as a foreign language, so that students can do so abroad for two weeks.

While these opportunities are alluring, they tend to verge on romanticized voluntourism a practice whereby tourists travel with the goal of both doing volunteer work and gaining valuable cultural experiences. However, these volunteers often leave without having contributed to tangible or sustainable change.

The bulk of general volunteer placements are arranged through a third party. As a result, U of T can’t be held accountable for how much impact a trip actually has on the local community. However, this isn’t the case for medical trips: since the university has international partnerships with local organizations, it has more leverage in creating a lasting and meaningful experience for everyone involved.

For example, the Dentistry in Uganda Program has partnerships with not-for-profit organizations like the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation. Medical missions have specified agendas and goals, and the students and professors attending them have medical expertise that is inherently valuable and relevant to those communities.

In contrast, it isn’t clear how meaningful short-term general international volunteer placements are for the communities in which they take place.

Take, for example, a university student teaching English to Tanzanian children for two weeks. Those children are not only learning from an inexperienced teacher, but they also see their teacher leave within less than a month. Not only can this separation break their hearts, but it also makes it unclear whether the temporary role of foreign teachers truly contributes to furthering learning and development.

As Sarah Pycroft, a UK teacher who volunteered for students in Sri Lanka, wrote in The Guardian, “[The other volunteers] suggested I teach them colours… I thought: ‘How do you not realize that every single previous volunteer would have taught them colours. You taught them nothing. They were good at colours because they knew it already. You’ve had no impact.’” The constant turnover of volunteering does not allow for continuous learning.

Voluntourism companies have been under intense scrutiny as non-government organizations across the world question the validity of sending youth to low-income countries without any expertise to do “difficult and sometimes inappropriate work.” To make matters worse, many companies fail to perform background checks, a routine procedure for jobs involving children, according to The Guardian

This reasoning also applies to other general volunteering opportunities, such as volunteering in soup kitchens abroad. There’s no benefit in paying an excruciating amount of money or spending a scholarship, to do a job that a local Costa Rican could do. Transitioning these voluntary positions into paid ones could help local workers, and ease the burden of unnecessary expenses for overseas volunteers.

There are alternatives to volunteering abroad. Canada has many enduring socioeconomic and medical inequalities. The relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers, for example, is one that could benefit from a sincere desire to connect with these communities on their terms. 

First Nations and Métis peoples across Canada are at higher risks of arthritis, asthma, and diabetes. In Ontario, “the prevalence of diabetes in Aboriginal people is three times that in non-Aboriginal Ontarians,” according to a government report. These inequalities put a significant strain on rural hospitals, and many hospitals in Indigenous and rural communities are appreciative of an extra hand. 

One can have a helpful and life-changing experience volunteering with various organizations such as L’Arche — community houses that provide safe and inclusive homes for disabled folk — or local soup kitchens, such as The Scott Mission.

Instead of allocating expenses toward voluntourism trips abroad, students should volunteer to aid local hospitals and shelters. These general placements still provide an interdisciplinary understanding of inequities without spending thousands of dollars. Moving forward, U of T should encourage more students to go on volunteer missions closer to home.

Joel Ndongmi is a first-year Social Sciences student at Victoria College.

Opinion: The credit/no credit deadline must be extended across all campuses, not just at UTSG

UTSC and UTM students should be afforded the same accommodation

Opinion: The credit/no credit deadline must be extended across all campuses, not just at UTSG

The impacts of COVID-19 have made all of our school lives more difficult. At the University of Toronto, the credit/no credit (CR/NCR) policy has been key in ameliorating academic difficulties. After all, being able to see your grade before deciding to CR/NCR is a sigh of relief in the face of heavily-weighted — yet now uncertain — finals. 

However, this is not a privilege afforded to all U of T students. In fact, UTSC and UTM students, who face the same difficulties in light of the spread of COVID-19, are making their CR/NCR choices without knowing their final marks.

UTSC and UTM students can only make their decisions until April 25 and April 22 respectively, and “no final grades will be released until after this date” per the UTSC website.

UTSG’s Faculty of Arts & Science was the first to announce its updated CR/NCR policy on March 15. It would have made sense for UTSC and UTM to follow suit, but instead, their announcements came two days after, with different CR/NCR deadlines.

The rationale that was offered for the differences between campuses is what is truly frustrating. 

The UTM website helpfully outlines that “the regulations and procedures that govern these decisions… may vary among the divisions across the University, as is normally the case.” These differences aim to “[maintain] academic standards of degrees and programs.”

In other words, differences in regulations and procedures, academic standards, and more are the cause of differences in policy.

Yet I do not believe that academic standards are so different across the three campuses as to warrant such a substantial variance. 

To be clear, the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and the Rotman School of Management at UTSG have both taken identical positions to the Faculty of Arts & Science. If three widely differing divisions with differing academic regulations and policies can arrive at the same decision downtown, then UTSC and UTM ought to as well.

For students who are dependent on final marks for employment, graduate school, and beyond, the ability to CR/NCR without knowledge of final marks is not sufficient when faced with writing a final that’s worth 40–50 per cent of their grade in an experimental, untested format. UTSG, the University of Waterloo, and Ryerson University all seem to agree on offering students the ability to CR/NCR after viewing their grades.

Fundamentally, this is an equity issue. UTSC and UTM students are U of T students too; they face the same academic standards, graduate with the same degree, and are equally impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Every U of T student deserves the same accommodations in the face of this pandemic.

Perhaps the university needs to listen to the petitions being circulated by those who have been impacted.

George Chen is a fourth-year Management and International Business student at UTSC.

Opinion: Late class cancellation put commuter students at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak

Ontario universities should have transitioned to online learning earlier

Opinion: Late class cancellation put commuter students at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak

It is no secret that commuter students, myself included, will jump at the opportunity to tell you about their latest TTC adventure. Truthfully, it’s a fun way to blow off steam and it’s usually a good conversation starter. However, the complaints among commuters have become more serious during the COVID-19 outbreak, as many of us were potentially exposed to the virus on a regular basis. 

Unfortunately, the University of Toronto, along with many other universities, did not adequately address our concerns about this in a timely manner.

According to Toronto Public Health, a person who tested positive for COVID-19 travelled on the TTC on March 2, 3, and 4 — exactly two weeks prior to the university-wide shut down.

Given the rate at which COVID-19 spreads, two weeks is a substantial amount of time for it to spread within the school’s community and the general public. 

We should also note that it takes up to two weeks for symptoms to become present, and not everyone who tests positive develops symptoms. As such, the virus can easily spread without our knowledge.

Many students at the University of Toronto are reliant on the TTC to get to and from campus on a daily basis, meaning that they may have unknowingly come into contact with COVID-19. 

Unlike those in Ontario, some American universities decided to transition to online learning earlier: Stanford University announced its movement to online classes on March 6.

Ontario institutions could have taken preventive measures as early as February 24 if they had listened to Chief Medical Officer of Health Theresa Tam’s warnings, but they chose not to promote social distancing practices.

As a result, many of us commuters had to risk public health just to attend a few lectures.

Personally speaking, this became a point of contention in my household because one of my parents has Crohn’s disease and routinely undergoes immuno-suppressive therapy.

As a result, my fears of getting COVID-19 while on my commute became so serious that I stopped going to classes before they transitioned online. Though this was the right thing to do, it did compromise my education. 

Some of my first-year courses are notoriously known for not posting any lecture material online, and I started to get behind in my coursework. Luckily, I have caring friends who were willing to help, but the university should be the main source of support for students who need academic accommodations — especially in a time like this.

While few crises can rival a pandemic, hopefully the university will treat future ones with urgency sooner than they did with COVID-19.

Yana Sadeghi is a first-year Social Sciences student at New College. She a columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.

Opinion: Muntaka Ahmed’s equity-based platform lacks systemic change

Despite great experiences in student leadership, Ahmed doesn’t promise tangible progress

Opinion: Muntaka Ahmed’s equity-based platform lacks systemic change

Muntaka Ahmed has robust experience in positions of power. She has worked as an executive assistant in the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), vice-president finance for the Muslim Students’ Association, and a marketing co-director of the Bangladeshi Students’ Association. This strong resumé assures student voters that, if elected, she would bring experience and expertise to the position of UTSU president, for which she is currently running.

However, this confidence fades when you take into account systemic change. Ahmed has good points that would have been beneficial and electable — if our period of time was not so strongly defined by political unrest. Considering the fact that the last calendar year was dominated by protests — most notably student protests — a drastic change in various systems worldwide is a sentiment that does not elude the UTSU. 

However, I failed to see any considerable changes to the UTSU system within her platform. A glaring example is the lack of a clear political stance on sustainability initiatives on campus, as well as the fact that, while she did prioritize advocacy for better mental health services, she does not specify exactly how this is to be implemented.

Her ticket seems to centre itself on expanding the definition of the UTSU beyond a group of few executives with immense authority and into the hands of the people who it represents. However, her platform fails to do exactly that by not being transparent about how she will implement her goals.

I believe a racialized Muslim woman can create immense change in the role of president, but based on her platform, I’m not too confident about any notable differences to the UTSU’s operation and goals — something that voters like myself are looking for. 

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year International Relations student at University College. She is an Associate Comment Editor.

Opinion: Arjun Kaul’s platform tackles a diversity of issues

The seasoned executive’s campaign promises to continue advocating for students

Opinion: Arjun Kaul’s platform tackles a diversity of issues

Arjun Kaul’s platform for University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) president promises to cater to everyone on campus. His focus prioritizes diversity and accessibility, as well as improving representation and outreach for underrepresented and marginalized campus communities. Furthermore, Kaul is a candidate who seeks to represent all student voices — not just those who fall under privileged groups. 

However, his platform suffers from a lack of depth due to its broadness, though the diversity of goals is nonetheless admirable.

Kaul is the union’s current vice-president operations and seeks to help students be involved in the decision-making process of the union. He wants to keep financial transparency and accountability so that students are fully informed on how their money is being used. When it comes to environmental justice, Kaul’s platform focuses on environmental sustainability and promises to reward campus clubs for sustainable operations. He also claimed that he will push for the divestment from the fossil fuel industry. 

He also seeks to advocate for mental health services in a compassionate and intersectional way. As he noted on his Facebook page, he wants to “help students cope with the problems that affect them directly.” This hands-on approach, as Kaul wrote, would involve addressing mental health through campus events, as well as through improved mental health services.

Facilitating peer support programs and improving alumni support is also a priority that Kaul highlighted in his platform.

Kaul wants to engage all students of our campus community, and that is his strength as a presidential candidate. While his platform is ambitious, Kaul’s clearly recognizes the shortcomings of the UTSU, and the gaps that must be filled moving forward. 

Hafsa Ahmed is a third-year Political Science student at UTM. She is an Associate Comment Editor.

Opinion: Bryan Liceralde’s dramatic campaign promises stand out in a sea of convention

Reviewing the candidate’s second go at the UTSU presidency

Opinion: Bryan Liceralde’s dramatic campaign promises stand out in a sea of convention

If you want to know why most students do not pay attention to student elections, read The Varsity’s presidential candidate profiles for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). The cliché of students not caring is by now a chicken-and-egg situation: students don’t vote because the unions don’t engage with them; unions don’t bother engaging because students don’t vote. Yes, we should try to be informed — but the current election offers little reason to.

While the candidates have had the opportunity to explain their ideas with more specificity during the executive candidates’ debate, their Varsity profiles and candidate statements should be sufficient to at least present the foundations of their campaigns.

The fact that these profiles are barely distinguishable from one another is worrying.

Both Muntaka Ahmed and Arjun Kaul speak grandly of improving student experiences and equity concerns, which are important. But they fail to explain exactly how their presidencies will tackle these issues in ways that distinguish them from previous executives’ efforts.

The only person to stand out is Bryan Liceralde, a second-time candidate who notes that he lacks experience in student politics.

Liceralde’s plans include making residence free for students whose families make less than $90,000 a year; enforcing that the UTSU take a neutral stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict and refuse to fund clubs that promote “violence” against civilians from either side; and using the UTSU as a platform for his personal “rants on music.”

Last year, he announced his campaign was partly an effort to win the Rhodes Scholarship. Absurd? Yes. Impossible? Likely. Not worth voting for? There’s the problem.

Liceralde stands out not only for the quixotic nature of his own promises, but also for the other candidates’ inability to articulate concrete proposals.

Unlike Liceralde, the more experienced candidates didn’t bother addressing anyone who is not already involved in student government.

I would like to know what you actually plan to do in office, and what you have to say to the thousands of students who aren’t sure you do anything at all.

With two out of three candidates already part of the current government, a picture emerges of an insular world that speaks only for itself, and to itself. This may not be a problem for students who are happy with business as usual, but it says nothing for those of us who struggle to understand why we should care.

Liceralde has no such problem. Not only did he cite the issues of grade deflation, breadth requirements, and Credit/No Credit — about which many students are opinionated — but he also expressed a desire to challenge Doug Ford’s postsecondary policies as a cornerstone of both this and last year’s campaign.

Being an outsider candidate, he does not limit himself to topics students only care about if they are already familiar with the UTSU’s operations. Who else takes a stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict in their statement, let alone a simultaneously authoritarian and neutral one? Who else sees the presidency as an opportunity to promote their music taste?

While Liceralde’s dismissal of Billie Eilish and The Weeknd as “overrated” is incorrect, it makes for a unique campaign issue. This candidate does not merely want to be the UTSU president; he sets out to challenge what the very office of president entails.

For the first time, I feel I have some understanding of that vocal group of Americans in 2016 who declared they would vote for Donald Trump just for the hell of it — just to see what would happen.

Liceralde’s policies may not make sense, but at least they sound nothing like the status quo. This is the jaded, nihilistic approach one takes when convinced the system, at best, doesn’t care about the people it represents, and at worst, shouldn’t exist.

If the UTSU is not such a system, I look forward to a candidate who will change my mind.

Jacob Harron is a fourth-year English student at Victoria College. He is an Associate Senior Copy Editor.

Opinion: A grace period would have helped us adjust to online learning platforms amid COVID-19 pandemic

Some faculty members lacked compassion for students during transition

Opinion: A grace period would have helped us adjust to online learning platforms amid COVID-19 pandemic

On March 13, U of T made the decision to cancel all in-person classes and move to online learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of uncertainty and panic, many professors resumed coursework as scheduled.

However, one of my professors did not even postpone a midterm that was scheduled for the first Tuesday after the online switch.

A better alternative would have been cancelling a week of classes so that students could have been able to travel home, faculty members could have adjusted to the online teaching platforms, and everyone could have had a chance to acclimate to this new development.

This seems to be the logical next step in these kinds of circumstances. However, U of T did not cancel classes, and many students are now having to deal with not only the stress of COVID-19, but looming deadlines and new work environments as well.

For many, the transition from campus to computer is not as smooth as the university claimed that it would be. As someone who is in self-quarantine with four family members, finding a quiet distraction-free zone has proven to be immensely difficult — especially when considering the constant stress of news alerts and endless emails from teaching assistants and professors. As a result, my productivity has taken a dramatic hit — and it seems as though I’m not the only one.

How can we be expected to return to business as usual given the situation at hand?

After receiving the email that in-person classes were cancelled, I immediately made arrangements to return home. During that time, I was so wrapped up with moving out of residence and making sure that my family members were safe that academics were the last thing on my mind.

When I logged into my U of T email account the following Sunday morning, I was stunned to find that my economics midterm would likely continue as scheduled. I couldn’t help but think of the international students who had to return home, or the students who were either ill themselves or had a sick family member.

In the days that followed, these concerns were met with messages from the professor stipulating that students in those situations would be eligible to write a make-up test. However, for the rest of the class, the March 17 date remained, with very little information as to how the format would change with the switch to an online platform.

The university should have at the very least pushed test dates and deadlines to the following week.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that U of T made the right — albeit late — decision to move to online classes. However, they have failed to realize the full effect this has on students.

Not everyone has an ideal environment to work from home. Whether it be distractions, an inadequate internet connection, or a mere lack of motivation that comes with the absence of structure, it is unfair to expect students to perform at their usual level.

Even with the implementation of unlimited Credit/No Credit options for some faculties, the next few weeks could dramatically affect an individual’s academic performance. As a result, students will continue to worry about how their GPA will be impacted while they don’t even know what the state of the world will be two weeks from now.

Haleigh Andrew is a first-year Social Sciences student at St. Michael’s College.