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The Stanton, Marchand and 90U complex. Image: Rhea Verma/Fulcrum

First-years reflect on a freshman year unlike any other

On March 18, 2020, virtual learning had taken over the screens of Canadian university students, including those at the University of Ottawa. One year later, we marked a year of online education as well as nearly the end of an entire virtual year for most first-year students who have never experienced in-person learning.

With the uncertainty the pandemic caused, virtual education may continue for the next academic year. And as that uncertainty lingers, many first-year students reflected on their experiences and provided useful tips to tackle issues they faced.

For some, virtual learning meant flexible education with more freedom and given independence but for others, adjusting to time zones, feeling more excluded in classes and struggling with WiFi were everyday problems that made it less enjoyable.

Opinions varied for the better or worse.     

“Online courses are really easy to follow and allow you to have more time to revise the lectures,” said Drishti Ramkhalawon, a first-year commerce student. “It would have been great if the university would have put into consideration the time difference for the exams especially the finals for the international students.”

“My favorite part is [that] online classes [are] very positive and that there is no anxiety as I can re-watch the [asynchronous] courses,” said Alexia-Rose Grégoire, a first-year linguistics student.

Challenges

Aside from the positives, there are still many challenges and complications that came with online learning that still needed to be addressed.   

“I dislike not having the classroom atmosphere, as it would help with focusing during lectures. [I] had professors not sharing their screen and ignoring messages, then getting upset with students when we’re trying to let them know,” said Adam Brown, a first-year chemical engineering and computing technology.

For some students, the frustration that came alongside virtual learning stunted any desire to partake in the main objective of university: learn.

“If I could, I’d get out of [online learning] as soon as possible. These are a waste of money. I am not getting the same level of education with online courses and … I barely have the motivation to work because of everything,” said Alexzander Gingras, a first-year software engineering student.

“I would say that my experience has been anything but enjoyable. When online classes first started, I would happily attend all my lectures,” said Hamza Israr, a first-year data science and mathematics. 

“I found it easier to teach myself the material rather than attend classes, and because of that, both my mental and physical health have gone down the drain.”

Looking ahead to the 2021-22 academic year, many students hope that universities and professors can take the past year to adjust to improve online learning. Given the fact that the switch from in-person to online was so abrupt, the transition was anything but smooth.

“The professors haven’t made a proper and comfortable transition to online learning,” said Israr.

“I wish for all professors to be more understanding that, because of this pandemic and online learning, the stress on students has only increased.” 

“Dealing with family while attending lectures in the same household may be tough for some students like me. A lighter workload would be nice as it would reduce some amount of stress on students.”

But how does one find the solution to a new learning landscape that, while being around for one year, is still seemingly brand new? One tip: ask the students.

“If people are burnt out and have lots of things due, saying things along the lines of ‘organize better’ or ‘don’t procrastinate’ has always felt unrealistic, downplaying and patronizing,” suggested Glen Wang, a first-year computer science student. 

“I can’t stress enough how much people need breaks, and how criminally often that gets overlooked.”

“Every Monday I tell myself ’all I’ve got to do is get through this week’ because every week is a nightmare,” added Gingras. “I stress myself out trying to learn concepts I can barely comprehend …  and then I fall behind in other courses because of the extra time spent educating myself through YouTube just to complete an assignment.”

In an attempt to make the potential upcoming online academic year smoother, here are tips from students who might find themselves overwhelmed next year.

“Keep yourself organized in all your subjects. Write your deadlines for assignments on a planner or even discuss your study plan for the day with a friend,” said Imaan Nahaboo, a first-year international management student.   

“Personally, I find it more motivating if a friend is following the same plan that I am as it feels less lonely, and we can always mutually ask for help.”

One key tip is to step away from the computer altogether, take breaks, and maybe even enjoy some sunshine outside. 

“Since you’re constantly in front of a screen and online courses can be very overwhelming, take much-needed breaks during the day, go for walks, do activities that make you relaxed and happy, take care of yourself. of course you should study a good amount of time to succeed but don’t be too hard on yourself,” said Celine Wan, a first-year computer science student.

“It [is] easier to adapt and plan your weeks so that you could still be able to have a healthy life. It is important to study for classes, but it is also important to take breaks to avoid burning out or overworking yourself,” added Ramkhalawon.