Commentary: The pandemic stole my university experience

A student wears a black and yellow graduation cap while looking out at the quad of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B. in this archive photograph from September 2020. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

Months before graduation, I’m realizing my core university memories all happened before March 15, 2020.

They include midterm studying in the Margaret Norrie McCain study hall and the spontaneous Thursday Cellar nights that would turn into S-Club ladies’ nights which would turn into coffee and breakfast with my friends in the morning before heading to our 10 a.m. classes.

It’s been two years since I’ve done those things. It’s been two years since I felt the dopamine boost of university life. But after talking with my friends, I realized – I’m not the only one feeling like this.

The weekend before the world went into lockdown in March due to the pandemic, my girlfriends and I took a road trip to Nova Scotia to visit our friend at St. Francis Xavier University. As I stopped at Shoppers Drug Mart after class to pick up some last-minute trip essentials, the cashier scanned my bag of Mini Eggs and said, “you’re going to need these if we go into lockdown, huh?” I smirked and went on my way, not considering what was to come.

Sackville is an essential road trip stop on the way to Nova Scotia. As we stood in line at McDonald’s waiting for our late lunch, all our phones dinged at the same time. As I looked down, someone gasped and I read that classes were moving online for the rest of the semester, starting with a two-week hiatus to allow professors to get their lectures in order.

Never did I think this way of life was going to last more than two years. While I had the opportunity to take one last trip before going into an indefinite lockdown, others didn’t.

Rowan Little was waiting to leave for an exchange program in Japan.

Three days before Little was supposed to fly across the world, COVID-19 cancelled the program.

It was too late to register for classes at STU since it was the middle of March and the semester was nearly over. They had to take the whole semester off of school.

Little decided not to return to classes in September 2021 since they were online.

It was June and I was sitting in the blazing hot summer sun when I got an email. Classes were announced online for the following fall semester. While my heart sank, grieving the time I would lose on campus, I was also excited at the thought of working from home.

Although we were still living through a pandemic that summer, life felt somewhat back to normal.

The first day of my third year of university was spent sitting at a make-shift desk I set up at my dresser, greeting everyone through a Teams call.

This was not normal.

This didn’t feel normal.

A month later, I moved into my first apartment.

My roommate and I spent every morning meeting each other in the kitchen for our coffee, sitting on the couch catching up and then pulling out our laptops and staring at the screen for hours, trying to learn the material we were paying thousands of dollars to teach oursleves.

That fall semester was a blur. I quickly became an online-school hater. As much as I wish I could tell you moments from that semester, I simply can’t.

The course material, quizzes, midterms, assignments, articles and exams all went through one ear and out the other.

Your third year of university is supposed to be important. That’s when you finally get to hone in on your preferences, tailor your degree and make connections with students and professors who will help you with your future. But the opposite happened to me.

Every piece of work I did felt like I was struggling to get it done, just to have it done. That’s why I didn’t retain anything.

I don’t even remember my first day of classes during the winter semester since it was online as well. I had a couple of professors who I never had before, and I only know them through a 13-inch screen.

My roommate and I have a friend whom we’ve had since first year. To make life feel a little bit more normal, she came over to our apartment to do schoolwork as much as possible. Well, when lockdowns weren’t intruding on having people over. All three of us are studying journalism, so we would squish into each other at our dining table and share one laptop screen for virtual classes. Imagine three heads crammed onto one Teams screen.

When classes were announced in-person for this fall, I couldn’t believe it. The feeling of being weighed down by my backpack walking to class and stopping in George Martin Hall to grab a Caramel Swirl Java Moose coffee on the way, felt sacred to me.

Victoria Young, a fourth-year STU student, said when classes were announced back in-person, we were in a crucial time of the pandemic. She said student life needed to be enhanced and adapted.

It wasn’t even the classes themselves that I missed most; it was the social life that surrounds being on campus.

My goal was to make this year of university feel like it did before the pandemic.

So, as my friend and I did two years ago, we met for coffee before class on the first day back, then drove to campus and sat on the high-top tables in GMH, facing the courtyard. We chatted about our in-person class schedule, our summer and our fears of being back on campus.

But this didn’t feel like it used to.

Campus didn’t have the same energy it used to have. No matter where we studied, where we drank our coffee and chatted about the weekend – this was not the same campus I knew before the pandemic.

Young said Sir James Dunn Hall doesn’t buzz as it used to, and she doesn’t know if it’ll ever be the same.

“I think there’s definitely a pre-pandemic and post-pandemic time,” said Young.

This is a point that has stuck with me this entire year. As I come close to the end of my degree, I can’t help but think about how different university felt pre-pandemic. Classes don’t feel the same anymore, studying doesn’t feel the same anymore, walking on campus doesn’t feel the same anymore.

Maybe this has something to do with the pandemic, or maybe it’s just because I’m coming to the end of my time at STU and nothing is as exciting as it was when I first started.

My university years didn’t turn out how I expected. We always hear that university will be the best time of our lives. It’s a time where we get to be young and experience everything adulthood throws at us, but I don’t know if that’s so true anymore.

University brought me the most rewarding years of my life, as it should for anyone, no matter if we’ve spent two years of our degrees online. This is the time we mould into the people we’re going to be in the future. But I feel like the pandemic took away all the university experiences I was supposed to have and left me sitting at home every day.

For myself and the people I know, being on campus doesn’t offer the same feeling anymore. Maybe one day, the new generation of STU students will sit at the same Cellar table I used to sit at, laughing and reminiscing on “those pandemic years.”