Pandemic U

In Covid times, new university students are hunkering down in their childhood bedrooms or alone in their dorms, staring at screens for hours on end. No frosh week, no parties, no classes. Here’s how a few of them are coping

Interviews by Ali Amad, Alex McClintock and Andrea Yu| Photography by Adam Coish
| October 26, 2020

For many people, first-year university is an intense rush of new experiences: the unruly dorm parties, the late-night library sessions, the frosh week chicanery. But this fall’s incoming students—the Covid class—will remember a very different freshman year. Meeting classmates on WhatsApp and Discord instead of in common rooms and at keggers. Attending classes from childhood bedrooms instead of in neoclassical lecture halls. Doing just about everything—lab work, exams, clubs, student politics—on Zoom or Quercus or Piazza or any number of other online platforms. To get a sense of what it’s like, we canvassed six dewy-eyed new students about how the whole university thing is going. Some kids who’d hoped to get a taste of independence are still at home with their parents. Others have moved into single-occupancy dorm rooms or downtown condos to approximate some semblance of the real thing. The one thing they can all agree on? Weirdest. Year. Ever.


Jade Bailey, 20

Studying: chemistry at Ryerson Hometown: Brampton Where she is now: at home in Brampton

I finished high school in 2019 and initially studied psychology at the University of Ottawa. I wanted that experience of living in a dorm on campus, just like the movies, but it ended up being the complete opposite of what I expected. My residence was on Rideau Street, a 15-minute walk from campus, and I didn’t get on with my roommate. I thought, Why am I paying $9,000 a semester for housing I hate? Then Covid hit, and the university told us we had to go home.

So I moved back into my mom’s four-bedroom home in Brampton. Right away, I had trouble concentrating on online learning, and I basically gave up on two of my classes. I soon decided that if I wasn’t going to be on campus, I might as well transfer to a school in the GTA. In August, I accepted a last-minute offer from Ryerson. I work part time as an insurance agent three nights a week, so I started paying my mom $400 a month in rent, just to help out, and I bought a desk for my room so I could study.

My relationship with my mom is solid. It helps that we don’t spend too much time together; she’s a property investor and is often out checking on her houses. Still, she never knocks. She’ll come into my room in the middle of a lecture to take my charger or to see what I’m doing. But at least she’s cleaner and more polite than my last roommate.

I’ve never been to the Ryerson campus, which is weird. My first class was physics, and the professor left the group chat on in Zoom. Everyone was talking to each other and making jokes. Later, we set up a study group on WhatsApp where we remind each other of due dates and share links to the course material. Everyone is really supportive, but I still don’t have any friends in my program. I’m shy and I never make the first move.

I have two credits carried over from last year, so I’m only taking four courses this semester: physics, chemistry, math and biology. My biology professor is my favourite—he splits lectures into three parts to make it easier for us to stay focused, and he does entire sessions where he just answers our questions.

Most days I have class in the morning. Then, if I’m not working, I spend the afternoon napping and watching YouTube or Netflix. I’m halfway through the Michael Jordan documentary.

I just had my first lab for biology. We can’t go into the laboratory, so we had to buy our own materials and do the experiment at home. I think exams will be the same.

One upside to online learning is that there’s a lot less pressure to attend every class. Last week, I was up late studying, and I slept through my 8 a.m. physics class, but all the lectures are recorded now, so I caught up later. It feels like I’m cheating on reality, but it’s really just more flexible. Sometimes I have trouble doing the work, though, because my eyes get strained from staring at screens all the time.

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I’m thinking of moving to downtown Toronto in January, using the money I’ve saved to live with a friend. I can’t wait to see people face-to-face again.


Jonathan Woo, 17

Studying: engineering science at U of T Hometown: Markham Where he is now: a condo in downtown Toronto

By the time I got into my senior year at St. Augustine Catholic High School in Markham, I knew I wanted to go to into medicine or engineering. My first choice, MIT, was too expensive, so I chose U of T. This summer, U of T ran an engineering program online to help students who’d missed out on months of learning because of Covid, so I took that, which really helped with the basics.

In the meantime, I had to figure out my living situation. I’d been looking forward to living on campus to immerse myself in university life, but that didn’t seem feasible during Covid. My parents had bought a pre-construction condo near Bathurst and Lake Shore as an investment. Even though the building was still incomplete, our unit had recently been finished. So I figured, What if I lived there? At least I’d still get a taste of independence.

In late August, a few days before the semester started, I moved in. I’ve never lived alone before, but it’s gone pretty smoothly. To save money, I’ve been cooking for myself. There’s a Loblaws nearby, so I can pop in and get whatever I’m craving that day. I can make pasta and pancakes and even some fancy sautéed dishes. I see my family most weekends and spend the rest of the time studying at home or exploring the city on my bike. Even though my classes this semester are all virtual, I still like to bike to the St. George campus and soak in the atmosphere. In the middle of the bustling city and high-rises, it’s a serene oasis with lots of green space. I love it.

Meeting people has been difficult, but not impossible. My program held an orientation scavenger hunt this summer, and it was incredible. I got to meet my classmates face-to-face—all of us in masks, of course—at Roy Thomson Hall before we looked for clues and did a bunch of fun activities all around the city. U of T engineering is known for its wild frosh week, so I was disappointed to miss out on that experience. Instead, we had a mostly virtual frosh week closer to the start of the semester. It wasn’t the same, but I got to meet people at the in-person orientations. We stay in touch in group chats through Discord, but we haven’t spent much time in person. We have the next four years to make up what we lost during Covid.

The main challenge has been my new virtual university routine. I’ve got six courses this semester, and each professor has their own teaching style and uses different learning platforms, like Quercus, Canvas, Zoom and Piazza. It’s hard to manage because the material isn’t centralized: for one assignment, we might get the bulk of the information on one platform and updates on another. That means we have to check in on all of them constantly, which gets tiresome.

I like to stay busy, so I’ve also applied to some school engineering design clubs, and I’m really looking forward to working on team projects. My goal next summer is to get an internship at a software company. But until then, I’m just taking everything in, one week at a time.

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Mikaila Strickland, 18

Studying: performance and production at Ryerson Hometown: Vaughan Where she is now: at home in Vaughan

Last spring, I was accepted into the BFA program in performance and production at Ryerson, where I’d learn how to create costumes and design sets. I was looking forward to being on campus and using the university’s facilities and theatre. I planned to live with my nonna, near Finch Station, so I’d have a shorter commute. But all that changed with Covid—since I no longer needed to get downtown every day, I decided to stay home in Vaughan.

I live with my parents and my twin sister, who is starting her first year of English at Laurier, and my older brother, who is in graduate school for engineering at Lakehead. I’m glad I still get to see my siblings, especially my sister. We’ve never lived apart, so it would have been weird not having her around.

We’re all studying at home, which can be challenging. For the first few weeks, my bedroom was being painted, so I was studying in the dining room with headphones on. It can be distracting if people are using the kitchen or watching TV. My sister popped into a video chat once because she wanted to give me a hug and didn’t realize I was in class, and my mom often tried to talk to me when I was in the middle of a lecture. I’m happy to have my own space to study again.

I have five classes and I’m in lectures for about 15 hours a week. One of them is an online lab for a design class. We always start off the lab by doing a sketch. There are about 12 of us, and we’ve tried holding up our sketches to the camera, but the instructor can’t really see them. So now we’re uploading our sketches instead. I was supposed to have another lab where we’d learn about wardrobe and building props, but it was postponed while the school figures out how to adapt it for pandemic times. They sent us a costume kit with things like fabric and needles so we’ll be able to learn about making costumes from home. I think they’re still going to try to have some in-person elements for the lab, but I’m not sure how that’ll work for the students not living in Toronto. Some of my classmates are as far away as Saskatchewan and the U.K.

We started a group chat for our program on Instagram, but soon moved to Discord. There are about 50 of us. It’s been nice to get to know people online. We usually hop on a call together after class to talk about what we’ve learned. People also show off their pets, share baking recipes and play Minecraft. There have been a few small meet-ups in person. In September, I went downtown with five of my classmates to buy drafting supplies from an art store. Two more came to join us afterwards for lunch. I was really excited to meet them because we’d been talking online for a few months by that point.

School isn’t what I was expecting, but I’m not too worried. Because I’m in first year, most of my classes are still lecture-based. In second year, we’re supposed to start helping out with shows and productions, but none of that is happening right now. I hope I’ll be able to do more classes in person down the road.


Zubin Gell, 18

Studying: arts at U of T Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y. Where he is now: in residence at U of T

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but I decided early on that I wanted to go to a Canadian university. New York schools are expensive, and I realized I could get the same quality of education for much cheaper if I moved north of the border. Plus, my mom’s Canadian, so I wouldn’t have to pay international tuition fees.

Because I was coming from another country, I had to quarantine for two weeks. I’d been accepted into Chestnut Residence near Dundas and University, but I wasn’t allowed to quarantine there. So I booked a room in the Chelsea Hotel down the street, and my mom and I took a road trip across the border in late August.

I’d never spent a day of my life in Toronto before I arrived in September. They told my mom she wasn’t allowed to get out of her car once she dropped me off, so we said goodbye in the car, and I spent the next two weeks confined to my room. Hotel staff left food at my door twice daily. It was better than airplane food, but not by much. I talked with my family and girlfriend back home, played video games and watched a lot of Star Trek. A U of T nurse also called me every day to check if I had any Covid symptoms.

When the two weeks finally passed, the first thing I did was check in to my residence. It was still pretty desolate since the semester hadn’t started yet. Only two people were allowed in an elevator at once, and facilities like the gym were closed. I normally have dinner in my room, but if I need fresh air, I’ll sometimes eat at a small park across the street. Even though I’m a few weeks into the semester now, I only really run into people at that park or in my residence’s hallways.

Since I can’t really socialize, I’ve been spending a lot of time checking out my new city by bike: I’ve gone along the Waterfront Trail as far as Mississauga. My favourite area is High Park. I also like the Stockyards. I’ve applied to volunteer at an animal adoption centre there.

Virtual learning at my high school was bare bones—I wasn’t even in contact with my teachers by the end of the year—so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at U of T. Thankfully, they’ve done a good job. My five courses are on Quercus and Zoom, and lectures are either livestreamed or recorded and emailed to students.

I stick to a daily schedule: in the morning, I’ll eat breakfast while watching a Zoom lecture, then step outside for a break around noon and do homework in the afternoon. The professors have been more helpful than I expected. One of them even gave us his phone number to text him if we ever had any questions. I also have a lot of Zoom meetings with my profs and TAs, so I feel connected to what’s going on. I’m looking forward to the handful of in-person courses I’ve got next semester—if they happen, of course. I’m thinking of majoring in political science and history.

If Covid cases keep going up, I have a feeling I might not be able to visit my family for American Thanksgiving or over the Christmas break. But that’s okay. I’ve become a lot more self-reliant in the past few months. I’m used to being alone.

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Michelle Sue, 17

Studying: life sciences at U of T Hometown: Vancouver Where she is now: in residence at U of T

I grew up in Vancouver, and I’ve always wanted to come to Toronto and have a big-city experience. When the pandemic hit, I wasn’t sure if I should come because Ontario had a lot of Covid cases. In the end, my family and I decided it would be okay for me to go. The virus is unpredictable everywhere.

In September, I took a red-eye flight from Vancouver and moved into residence that morning. I’m living in Hutton House at University College and doing my first-semester classes online. I get a lot of strangers DMing me to ask if I want to sign petitions to lower the tuition fees. I definitely wish they would do that, but I understand the university has to keep up with its fixed costs.

Lots of the usual frosh week events were cancelled, and most of the clubs have gone online, which is a shame. I grew up riding horses, and I played basketball in high school—I was hoping to play for the women’s basketball team and join the equestrian club. I did run for office, though: I’m the co-president of my house. My favourite frosh week activity was a walking tour of Toronto. Coming from Vancouver, where it’s very hilly, I was shocked to learn I could see the CN Tower from almost anywhere. Toronto is just so big—there’s so much architecture and lots to explore. I haven’t been out to bars or restaurants yet, but I’m looking forward to that when it’s safe.

Honestly, I’m surprised they’re letting us live on campus. All the rooms at Hutton House are single-occupancy this year, so I don’t have a roommate. Usually there are 28 students in my residence, but this year there are only 12, and I know lots of them from Facebook and Instagram introduction pages, which were set up before we arrived. I’d connected with some other students online before school started, and most of them live next door in Morrison House. I spend afternoons in the study rooms there.

I’ve had a few social interactions. One day, I’d just finished a lecture and heard a knock at my door. It was a guy I’d met online, who turned out to live next door to me. We’d barely talked in person, but he asked if I wanted to go thrifting. We walked to Kensington Market, and I bought a blazer. It was such a nice surprise.

My friends joke that we’re all going to get Covid. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us did, even though we’re playing it safe. My friends and I walk around campus or chill in each other’s rooms almost every night, but we all know parties aren’t a good idea. There are definitely some gatherings, though. I see pictures on Instagram. It’s not crazy parties like at Western, but people are getting together in their social circles.

One thing I didn’t expect is how hard it would be to keep track of my courses. Every class is on a different platform: one of my profs communicates by email, another just posts on the website. Some release assignments one by one, others all at once. It’s hard to know whether you’re ahead or behind.

My long-term plan is to do a double major in physiology and global health, then a medical degree. But in the short term, I’m just hoping that my second-semester classes will be in person.

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Marta Shahezian, 19

Studying: life sciences at U of T Hometown: Baghdad Where she is now: at home in Scarborough

I was born in Baghdad and lived there for 16 years. My family is Iraqi-Armenian, and things were difficult for us when I was a child: I couldn’t play in the streets due to constant bombings and violence. I loved studying English and science, and I learned a lot from watching American movies and reading Game of Thrones.

Three years ago, my parents decided to leave, eventually getting Canadian refugee status. During this time, I attended the United World College of the Adriatic, an international school in Italy where I studied for the International Baccalaureate. After graduation, I moved to Canada and settled with my parents in Scarborough. I completed all our government paperwork because my English is better. My dad works as an electrical technician and my mom is trying to find a job.

I originally planned to study medicine in Italy, but when the coronavirus hit, it seemed too dangerous, so I accepted an offer to do life sciences at U of T. Since all the classes are online, it made sense to save some money and stay home. Living with my parents is okay, but they’re classic strict Middle Eastern parents. I’d like to move out and live on campus next year if it’s possible.

The months before university started were a black hole. I was going to bed late and sleeping in a lot. Now that school has started, I’ve sorted out my sleep schedule. I’m getting up at 9 a.m. every day. The morning is a good time for study because my parents are out of the house.

We have study groups on WhatsApp, but the chat is all about school stuff. The other day I jokingly asked if someone could help me do a Lacanian psychoanalysis of Shrek and Donkey’s relationship with the dragon, and people thought it was real homework.

I haven’t made any friends yet. There are other groups where people can introduce themselves, but I find them really awkward. I’m not great at putting myself out there, but I guess I have to try harder. I get more social interaction in the nighttime when I play PS4 with my friends from high school. Last night I sat up playing FIFA with a friend and talking about whether Charlie Kaufman’s new movie is pretentious. That’s the extent of my social life.

Overall, online learning gives me anxiety. I’m not the most organized person at the best of times, so now I’m constantly worried that I’ve somehow missed a whole assignment that’s due tomorrow. On the other hand, the recorded lectures are great. I’m able to go back and catch anything I missed. I’m enjoying Film and Literature for Our Time: we read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which I loved because I’m a big fan of Apocalypse Now.

I’m not exactly optimistic about the next year, but studying is giving me a structure and purpose I haven’t had for the last six months. So I guess I’m happy to be going to school, even if it’s online.

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This story appears in the November 2020 issue of Toronto Life magazineTo subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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