‘It’s split us in half’: First-year students look back on a year of COVID-19

Virtually finding a place at Queen’s

The Journal spoke with three first-year students who reflected on the 2020-21 school year. 
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Phoebe Schneider, ArtSci ’24, spent half the year in residence. She told The Journal that, because of this, her first-year experience likely didn’t mirror those stuck at home.

After an academic year dominated by remote learning due to COVID-19, The Journal sat down with three first-year students to compare their experiences.

Schneider spent the fall term living in Leonard Hall residence. Since winter break and the December provincial lockdown, however, she’s been at home in Prince Edward Island.

“The whole reason I went to residence in the first place was to experience campus, so when they shut down the libraries and the study buildings and the dining halls, it just wasn’t worth it money-wise for me to go back,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

When COVID-19 cases rose in the Kingston region in December, the University closed libraries, the ARC, and other services. They were opened later in the winter term, but last month, after an outbreak was declared in Watts Hall, they were shuttered again.

“I really miss it, I really liked residence. It just was not worth the money to be locked in my room and just be scared of COVID all the time,” Schneider said.

Residence was not guaranteed this year. Only single and single plus rooms were offered, reducing residence capacity by approximately 50 per cent.

Students in residence were expected to eat and socialize within their ‘households,’ or the fellow students living on their floor. Floors were not supposed to mix.

Despite the changes made to residence this year, Schneider still said she “loved it.” She was able to meet people and build friendships despite the remote environment, and most of these friends came from her floor.

“There was definitely a lot of COVID fear […] but I think it was a really great way to get to know Queen’s and get to know a lot of people,” she said.

“If I didn’t move to res in the first place, it would have been a completely different year, and I feel very, very sorry for the people who didn’t get the chance to come to res, because I think it’s split us in half.”

Schneider isn’t in touch with anyone from her frosh group—her frosh leaders were great, she said, but only a couple of first-years showed up to each virtual session.

Despite this, she still feels involved in the campus community. Schneider volunteered at the Good Times Diner, is an executive member of Queen’s Period, and is an Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS) intern, meeting a number of people through these experiences.

“It’s been a really, really great way to feel part of the community,” she said. “If I’d stayed at home, I likely wouldn’t have done any of those things […] so I can totally understand how it’s really difficult to feel connected at all to Queen’s if you’re not on campus.”

Though she does feel connected to campus and has made some strong friends, Schneider said her first year at Queen’s has been “disappointing.”

“Queen’s does have that social life reputation […] and the fact that we didn’t get it this year is sad, but I just think that it’s gonna mean that after COVID, it’s gonna be even better than before.”

Schneider will be living off-campus next year with some people from her floor. She said off-campus living is a “huge issue” for those who didn’t land a spot in residence this year—without being on campus, it’s hard to find housemates and learn how Kingston housing works.

“To be in residence, where I’d be stuck in my room, alone […] would be really hard”

Ezri Wyman, ArtSci ’24, is also living off-campus next year in a house with three other students. She knows two of them—one she met in her physics tutorial, and one she knew from before Queen’s. She’s signed a lease but has never seen the house.

Wyman has lived at home in Toronto throughout the entire 2020-21 academic year. She applied to live in residence in the fall term but deferred her acceptance to the winter term to see how the pandemic would progress.

She eventually rejected her spot altogether because she lives in a high-risk household thinking that, should she come to residence, she wouldn’t be able to visit home.

“To be in residence, where I’d be stuck in my room, alone, and not be able to see other people, or cook, or bake, or any of that stuff, would be really hard,” she said.

She added living at home while studying at Queen’s has been “a little weird.” Though she lives with her sister, who also goes to Queen’s, she would’ve liked to be around more fellow Queen’s students.

“It would be nice to be with other people doing the same kinds of things,” she said.

Wyman said she’s barely been able to meet anyone in her first year at Queen’s. She’s made two friends in her Physics tutorial group, the only people she’s stayed in touch with.

She doesn’t think her experience would have been much different if she lived in residence.

“I haven’t met a lot of people, but I interact with people from time to time, and there are people who I’m friendly with, but I think it’s harder online,” she said.

Like Schneider, Wyman hasn’t stayed connected with anyone from her frosh group. She said that, though she paid the $40 ASUS Orientation fee, she didn’t really get an orientation—her group had one Zoom meeting that was announced 30 minutes prior to its starting time, and that was it.

Despite the remote environment, she’s been able to get involved with some clubs and activities on campus—she’s next year’s head of the Juggling Club and has written and illustrated for The Journal.

Overall, Wyman said the pandemic and remote learning has negatively impacted her social experience at Queen’s and, like Schneider, she doesn’t feel she’s attained that traditional first-year Queen’s experience.

“[COVID-19 has] really made it a lot harder to make connections,” she said. “I think that the online environment can be really anonymous, and especially in some of my asynchronous courses, I don’t know any of my classmates.”

“I think professors, in terms of scheduling their courses, underestimate how important it is for students to be able to work with each other, and that makes it a lot harder when you’re really isolated.”

“[H]ad [I] been in residence, I would also have had the opportunity to at least find a community where I felt [less] different.”

Andrea Santalla, ArtSci ’24, had a similar experience to Wyman. She originally planned on living in residence but opted to live at home in Markham for the fall and winter terms because of COVID-19 safety and financial concerns.

“I felt it wasn’t worth it to pay for the cost when I wouldn’t really be getting the full benefits of being in residence—you know, meeting people, that kind of stuff,” she said.

Santalla said that, had she lived on campus, she likely would have been able to meet more people and feel more accepted into the campus community.

“Being a person of colour, visibly so […] I have to open my laptop and see a Zoom gallery full of people who are lighter than me, and they all look pretty much the same, and then I’m the only different one,” she said.

“I feel like, even though I would still have to face that if I had been in residence, I would also have had the opportunity to at least find a community where I felt [less] different.”

For the 2021-22 year, she’s planning on moving to Kingston, where she’ll live off-campus with her boyfriend. She’s considered trying to find other housemates but didn’t want to solicit housemates via Facebook—she doesn’t want to live with someone she doesn’t know.

Santalla said she’s been able to cope with remote learning on the academic side of things, though connecting with the Queen’s community or making friends has been a struggle.

“While I’ve met some people that I liked in my classes, I really can’t say that I’ve made any connections, because even once I meet those people […] it takes a lot more effort to keep up with them,” she said.

Like Schneider and Wyman, Santalla isn’t in touch with anyone from her frosh group. She said the transition to remote Orientation Week was “the best [the University] could do” given the circumstances but, past that, it wasn’t ideal.

“They did their best,” she said. “I met people, like in passing, [but] I didn’t form any friendships or lasting relationships.”

She said she went to one of the Zoom meetings, but few people showed up and it felt “half-assed,” so her attendance stopped there.

“That’s what all this is: a big disappointment”

Santalla said she hasn’t been involved in as many clubs as she would have liked due to the remote environment. She was involved in Down There Piece of Mind, a show on campus. She liked the other people involved, but after the performance, those connections ended.

“We’re not in the same city, so the situational circumstances aren’t there for us to maintain the relationship,” she said.

Santalla met most of the people she knows through the PSYC 100 Discord group. She became a helper there and made connections with the other first-years in the group.

“We would go and rant about how lacking the PSYC 100 situation is,” she said. “It’s different because all I know is their profile picture […] and the weird usernames. It felt good to be supported even though it was anonymous.”

Santalla agreed with Schneider and Wyman—all three said they didn’t feel they attained the traditional, Queen’s first-year experience.

“That’s what all this is: a big disappointment,” Santalla said.

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