Keeping the spirit of O-Week alive online

The Class of 2024 is the first to experience a virtual orientation week as a result of COVID-19

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Student leaders across faculties traditionally begin planning orientation week up to a year in advance.

This March, however, a wrench was thrown into those plans when campus shut down in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Once it was cemented that all orientation week events would occur online—and that events for some faculties were to take place over the course of two weeks rather than one—orientation leaders got to work planning a kind of orientation never before seen at Queen’s. 

READ MORE: COVID-19 pushes Queen’s orientation week online

Anika Chowdhury, head gael of Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS), took a granular approach by assessing how each event could be translated into an online setting.

“We’ve adapted every single in-person event and we’ve re-invented what orientation really looks like while still preserving our goals,” Chowdhury said.

Mitul Karmaker, head coat of Health Sciences Orientation, and his team reacted similarly. 

“Our executive committee tried their best to maintain the traditional aspects of in-person Orientation and move them onto an online platform,” Karmaker said.

“This would include things like making Orientation Group signs as people's Zoom backgrounds and moving our traditional events like coverall painting and tamming ceremony online.”

Taylor Kim, head of the Commerce Executive on Orientation (CEO), emphasized the importance of teamwork in the transition to a virtual orientation week.

“Strong communication and collaboration have been extremely helpful […] Since COVID, the CEO has met every week to plan the diverse range of events that we offer.”

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As with in-person events, addressing accessibility was a top priority for student orientation leaders, with new considerations added this year because of using online platforms to deliver programming.

The greatest adjustment was made to orientation fees, with many faculties choosing to drop fees—and others choosing to get rid of them entirely.

ASUS orientation fees, according to Chowdhury, dropped by more than 50 per cent to $40. The Concurrent Education (ConEd) orientation fee dropped to $15, in comparison to previous years when it was a little over $100. Commerce orientation fees this year are around $45, the Engineering fee is $40, and the HealthSci fee is $5.

Shafagh Shabestari, First-Years Not-in-Residence (FYNIRS) chair, explained that FYNIRS orientation is entirely free to address changing financial situations for students impacted by COVID-19.

As in other years, all orientation leaders have made support available through formal bursaries or by providing the option for students to contact leaders and arrange for financial accommodations if they’re unable to pay fees.

Beyond financial barriers, an online orientation week requires an adaptive approach to addressing harassment and other issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

Chowdhury said that, during online events, students have the option to enter remote support rooms with members of the Peer Support Centre (PSC).

Considering increasing anti-racism efforts this summer, Alexis Pascoal, head teach of ConEd, said it was important to show incoming students that Concurrent Education is an “equitable, inclusive, and diverse faculty.”

Teaches were asked over the summer to engage with anti-racist educational resources and share these learning initiatives among themselves. Reflections by Teaches on the exercise are currently up on the faculty orientation’s Instagram page.

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Pascoal was concerned when she first realized that 100 per cent of orientation would take place virtually—and particularly about whether programming could effectively engage incoming first-year students.

“We kind of wanted to set our expectations low, because everyone has been online and it’s difficult to have a very good turnout.”

But when registration opened, she was pleasantly surprised by the numbers that came in. Out of approximately 380 incoming ConEd students, 340 registered to participate in orientation week, and just over 200 showed up to the first event—an impressive turnout, in her opinion, for a Monday morning.

Shabestari had also seen significant engagement with virtual events, as had Karmaker.

According to Karmaker, “a lot of the incoming students have been engaging really well with virtual events.”

Leaders also considered the possibility of online burnout—the fatigue that comes from sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time.

ConEd orientation leaders were sure to spread out events, alternating between pre-recorded videos and daily live events, ensuring that on most days, a maximum of one event takes place.

Shabestari took a similar approach.

“We ensured to plan events that are not lengthy as we understand the difficulty with sitting in front of the computer all day for an event.”

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With Queen’s embarking on a semester that will take place nearly entirely virtually, orientation leaders are confident they’ve provided incoming first-years with the best possible start to that experience.

Chowdhury commended the work of her team in adapting to the circumstances.

“Transitioning during a global pandemic has been challenging, but I think our orientation committee really stepped up to the plate and worked extremely hard to bring virtual orientation to life.”

She was also excited about the permanency that the online format provided, with many ASUS, ConEd, HealthSci, and other orientation events available on YouTube.

“That’s something unique about this virtual platform—we’re creating resources that can last a lifetime.”

Commerce orientation is no different. According to Kim, events will be either pre-recorded or filmed and available 24/7 to ensure accessibility for the incoming students.

Pascoal was confident that, while traditions looked different this year, their spirit was kept alive— something each orientation leader echoed.

She spoke to the enthusiasm present at one of the first ConEd events, the Ambush, where Teaches run across Agnes Benidickson Field covered in silver. This year, Teaches muted themselves and had cameras turned off until the moment of the Ambush, when they appeared on screen together to greet first-years. 

With a handful of Commerce orientation days left, Kim was optimistic and had advice for incoming first-year students.

“I want to emphasize the importance of each student stepping outside of their comfort zone to get the most out of this week. Take advantage of every opportunity possible; speak to new people, make friends, be engaged in the events, and try new things.”

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