From the dance floor to the dorm room: How the pandemic changed frosh for the Class of 2024
Growing up in Oakville, Jessica Yang expected that she too would mark the beginning of her university career with a fall orientation week to remember.
“A lot of my upper-year friends have talked about how the best friends they have in university have been made through frosh week,” Yang said.
The 17-year-old biomedical engineering student moved into her dorm room at the University of Waterloo last week. But the frosh week she’ll be attending will not be one filled with the chants, parties and bonding activities that she’d hoped for.
Instead, DJ’s will be delivering their party sets to Yang and her peers virtually. Like many events this year, frosh across Canada is only being held online.
Frosh week generally refers to the first week of university or college where new students, usually first-years, participate in a variety of orientation activities to get to know one another and make new friends as they embark on their post-secondary studies. Activities common to frosh include a variety of icebreaker games, events and fairs to get students acquainted with their new campus.
For now, COVID-19 regulations have banished hopes of large gatherings indoors, let alone the idea of rushing onto a crowded dance floor. And with several universities south of the border already struggling with significant outbreaks, most Canadian post-secondary institutions are sticking to online-only frosh events.
This means new students will swap white water rafting for web games, and pub nights for movie nights over Zoom — marking yet another rite of passage lost for the graduating high school class of 2020.
Facebook pages for frosh events this year describe “virtual nightclub parties” and promise “high energy” and an “engaging” experience. At Carleton University in Ottawa, for example, organizers have tried to stick to much of the same events of previous years, but with a virtual twist.
“It looks a little different this year, but the idea of helping students feel welcome for the next exciting chapter of their lives is still going to be there,” said Osman Elmi, Carleton University Students’ Association vice-president of student life.
One event unique to Carleton University’s frosh is the canal games, where students are divided up into teams and participate in a tournament with a variety of challenges to earn points and win prizes. This year, the games have been swapped with a scavenger hunt in Ottawa, Elmi said, to allow students to be competitive and discover their new city and campus, all while maintaining COVID-19 distancing measures.
At Seneca College, there will be plans to stream everything from yoga to cooking classes on Instagram, said Aidan D’Souza, a third-year law enforcement student and mentor to first-year students.
“It’s not the same as going to a social event like pub night. But honestly, (the schools) are trying their best to still give that student experience,” he said. One of his favourite events over the summer were trivia nights. “Those are fun — they give out gift cards, it’s very competitive, and you get to meet people online.”
Companies, like condom producer Trojan, have thought of guidelines to limit disruptions to dating and hooking up, a common experience in campus life for some students. This includes encouraging online dating to meet people, and having open conversations about the risk of COVID-19 exposure to themselves and those around them who may be immunocompromised.
Elmi said planning frosh has been challenging, as the student association tried to keep up with changing COVID-19 guidelines throughout the pandemic, but he added he hopes the program will help both students in the city and those studying virtually feel like they are a part of campus.
While Yang will still be attending parts of Waterloo’s virtual frosh in the coming days, she said spending time with fellow students online is not the same.
“I am a pretty sociable person and I get a lot of my daily energy from talking with my friends and interacting with them,” Yang said. “Meeting in real life would be a lot more fun, so we’ve found that quite difficult for us.”
Frosh only marks the beginning of an entire online semester for Canada’s post-secondary students, where classes will be held virtually. Meanwhile, many common areas at the Waterloo campus remain closed — student lounges, gyms, and even the university libraries are empty, Yang said.
“I am quite disappointed that I won’t get the same experience and I don’t get that sort of interaction,” she said. “But I’ve been just making friends within our residence hall and it’s been going well so far, so I am just trying to focus on the positive side.”
While Yang has moved onto campus for the duration of her online studies, others, like international student Sara Kallas, won’t be able to experience campus at all due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Kallas, who lives in Egypt, was planning to move to the University of Toronto in August to begin her political science degree. Instead, she’s been attending orientation events online with other first-year students via Zoom, and will only be able to participate in frosh events virtually from her home — 9,500 kilometres away.
But Kallas is not too disappointed. She’s already been able to meet new friends virtually, and has gotten a head-start on joining groups like the debating club at the university, which will continue its activities online.
“Of course it’s a little different than if I was on campus, but I appreciate their effort,” Kallas said. “I was actually quite excited they didn’t cancel the clubs.”
Kallas said her online orientation sessions thus far have been a pleasant experience. She was nervous, but said it was refreshing to know she wasn’t the only one who was feeling the pressure of starting university online.
“We’re all a bit worried about the pandemic and how we’re going to deal with that, but at the end of the day we’re all in the same boat so we’re all willing to help each other,” she said.
Socialization and the creation of a new community are often the main objectives of fall orientation weeks, as many students are leaving their hometowns for the first time and moving out on their own.
For Kallas, spending more time with her family in Egypt is welcome before she makes the move across the globe. But international students who are already living in Canada are feeling the brunt of isolation, making students’ mental health another challenge as universities and student services try to plan their welcome week.
At Hoem, a private 30-storey residence hall in downtown Toronto that houses as many as 600 students, residents are being offered two hours of free virtual counselling to deal with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
“It was obviously a very shocking and very stressful time, especially for students,” Delaney Cummings, student engagement manager at Hoem, said. “We have a lot of international students here as well so we wanted to focus on mental health and supporting their wellness during that time.”
At Carleton, Elmi said the students’ association has worked on a 24/7 mental health hotline that can now be accessed in more than 20 countries for international students who aren’t able to make it to Canada. Online resources like TogetherAll, an online peer-to-peer mental health support community, are also available to students Canada-wide.
Maija Padjen, director of the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health, said the loss of a traditional fall orientation is only a fraction of what high school graduates had already endured this year as a result of the pandemic.
“They didn’t get to say goodbye to their graduating class, they didn’t have a prom or had a virtual prom, they didn’t have a graduation,” Padjen said, adding this monumental year has been a very unique experience for them when compared to their predecessors.
And while the loss of these milestones can bring up feelings akin to grief, Padjen said students have also proven to be quite resilient.
“There’s a lot of disappointment and a lot of sadness,” she said. “I also think this is a group that has bounced back and has been very adaptable.”
Indeed, frosh may not be the same as it was before. But Kallas said she and others are trying to make the most of it.
“I’m obviously disappointed because for my entire life I was looking forward to moving into the dorms, but at the end of the day everyone’s safety is more important than that,” Kallas said. “Eventually, I will meet everyone in person on campus. I guess we just have to push through these tough times until everything clears up.”
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