How Canadian universities are welcoming their freshmen during a pandemic

Roaming around campus, getting to know dorm mates—these are rites of passage for first-year students. So how do they settle in when they have to socially distance?

Jennifer Lewington
Black (right), with her mother, Lynn Black, moves into residence at Wilfrid Laurier (Photograph by Alex Jacobs-Blum)

Black (right), with her mother, Lynn Black, moves into residence at Wilfrid Laurier (Photograph by Alex Jacobs-Blum)

May Black headed to Wilfrid Laurier University this fall ready to become a “Golden Hawk”—the nickname for students who embrace the school spirit of the Waterloo, Ont., institution. The 18-year-old trombone and piano player chose Laurier for its music program, compact main campus and the warm welcome she received when she toured the school two years ago. But with coronavirus disruptions expected to last into 2021, campus life is going to be “super different,” says Black from her hometown in New Lowell, Ont. She belongs to an unenviable cohort of freshmen across the country who have few (if any) options to attend class in person, hang out in residence or join a sports team or on-campus student club. Instead, they’ll begin their university life in front of a computer screen.

Rocked by the new reality, universities scrambled in recent months to virtually reproduce the “stickiness,” or sense of belonging, that naturally occurs when students meet in and outside the classroom. With no road map for the unprecedented mandate of social distancing on campus, officials added new programs and interactive tools, and mobilized faculty and senior students as allies to redefine “stickiness” in an online environment.

The stakes are high.

At the best of times, about 15 per cent of first-year students do not return in second year (they drop out, defer studies or switch schools), according to Statistics Canada. COVID-19 represents a new risk that could turn off this year’s freshmen, given the less-than-ideal learning conditions. “I don’t want a lost cohort,” says Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy. “I don’t want students to decide that university is not for them because the learning environment did not work for them.”

This year, all universities are seeking normality and connectedness in abnormal times, tailoring their own strategies to reimagine the building blocks of student engagement: classroom learning, residence life, freshmen outreach, orientation and faculty mentoring.

In class (or not)

Acadia University, located on a 250-acre campus in Wolfville, N.S., prides itself on offering a personalized liberal arts education. When COVID-19 cases revved up nationally last May, Acadia surveyed new and returning students. “They had a very high preference for an on-campus experience,” says Scott Duguay, the university’s vice-provost of students, recruitment and enrolment management. “If we offered [that],” he says, “we could expect similar enrolment. But if it was virtual [only], it would drop substantially, and more students would delay to January.”

READ: Can Canada’s universities survive COVID?

In July, after months of deliberation, Acadia opted for maximum flexibility. Within public health guidelines and with a fall enrolment of about 1,000 first-year students (down slightly from 2019), the school made plans to offer 10 per cent of courses in person, with no more than 43 students, and the remaining 90 per cent of courses as a mix of in-class and virtual learning. High-demand courses would be in the latter group to maximize access no matter the study location. Lower-enrolment electives could be face-to-face with students spaced across a classroom. “We need to remain Acadia,” says Duguay. “It is all about the personal, humanized education experience and that doesn’t have to change online.”

Reputation concerns were also paramount at Trent University, a liberal arts, undergraduate institution in Peterborough, Ont. Given the promise of “a personal, transformative experience,” president Leo Groarke says, “we are determined to hold onto the in-person part of education.” Among several new initiatives at Trent this fall is an on-campus course limited to 20 first-year students in a class taught by an experienced or award-winning professor. This “critical engagement” course asks a big question (this fall, it is “What is the good life?”) to help students hone skills in research, writing and oral debate. Remote learners can take the course online.

Other freshmen classes are virtual, but some science labs and study groups are in person. “Of course, safety is a priority,” says Groarke. But within that constraint, he adds, the new course is “a special way in which we are trying to make sure the in-person experience is there for students who want it.”

Other schools decided last spring to go entirely virtual this semester.

Health was “the number one priority” in moving online, says Laurier’s MacLatchy, who met her senior officials weekly, sometimes more often, to devise a comprehensive virtual welcome for 5,000 freshmen. “Some things are not going to be the same,” she says. “So how do we transition so that students are meeting their peers and other students? At the end of the day, it is the relationships that are key.”

Laurier beefed up other aspects of its “stickiness” strategy—for example, extra academic, wellness and career-planning supports—and recruited faculty and upper-year students to send a consistent welcome message. “It shows, whether we are virtual or in person, that we have met the brand promise that we are developing the whole student, academically and personally, through their university journey,” says MacLatchy. “That is what we need to get right.”

‘I feel pretty safe with what they have prepared,’ says first-year student Leeder (centre) (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)
‘I feel pretty safe with what they have prepared,’ says first-year student Leeder (centre) (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Residence life (or not)

Most universities offer residence living to first-year students, but this year, public health rules dictated the terms.

Acadia delayed its fall semester to Sept. 21 to allow for a two-week quarantine of freshmen as they arrived on campus. Dormitory occupancy is restricted to one student per room, and no visitors are allowed in dorm rooms. Washrooms are limited to a maximum of four students who have set schedules for access to laundry facilities. The university also introduced a new radio-frequency identity card to track movements between buildings. “We can do single-direction flow [in buildings], with [entrance and exit] tap cards, so we will know who is going in and out and at what time,” says Duguay. “If there is an outbreak, public health takes over and we can provide a lot of help in terms of contact tracing.” First-year Acadia student Alexandra Leeder, an 18-year-old from Whitby, Ont., who moved into the school’s residence in September, says, “I feel pretty safe with what they have prepared for the students. They’re doing their best.”

READ: What college students in Canada can expect during COVID

Laurier freshman Ben Jesseau, 18, also opted to live on campus, eager for a taste of normality. “There was still that opportunity to have some kind of independence and social interaction,” he says. “It still made sense for me to go.” Jesseau is enrolled in degree programs in business administration at Laurier and mathematics at the nearby University of Waterloo, and chose Laurier as his home base for what he saw as a livelier campus atmosphere. While Laurier reduced residence occupancy to 40 per cent, the university retained a full roster of residence dons to help freshmen adjust to university amid pandemic anxieties.

First-year Laurier student Keren Ighalo praised her university for “being safe, cautious and responsible” but wanted more freedom than is available, so she rented an apartment close to campus. The school has redesigned its supports for those living off-campus, assigning senior students as mentors who will meet virtually with freshmen in assigned groups for academic and social activities.

Early-bird outreach

This year, most universities sought to establish strong freshmen connections sooner than usual.

Trent worked with student leaders to develop the Trent Mobile app, which links students to government COVID-tracking sites and other resources, and provides personalized information to help them keep abreast of assignments, exam schedules, student-club group chats and transit schedules. In mid-June, the university’s annual Summer Connect welcome program opened six weeks early; 125 student volunteers were assigned to freshmen based on personal interests. In August, 200 student orientation-week leaders followed up with freshmen grouped by college affiliation. “It’s not just about providing student services, but [it’s]very much about building community,” says Nona Robinson, Trent’s associate vice-president of students.

The university incorporated a new online element into 25 first-year courses with the help of recruited student volunteers—key allies for many schools—to teach Trent freshmen the ropes of campus life. While the program is tied to academic courses, the volunteers serve as friendly faces to students, not as aides to the professors. “Any time I have asked students to help in supporting other students, I always have more students [offering] than I know what to do with,” says Robinson.

In early July, Laurier held a first-ever virtual welcome party for freshmen. “It was a good introduction to how online [learning] is going to be,” says Taylor Magill, 18, who signed on from her home in Innisfil, Ont. “You are trying to be revved up but then you realize, ‘I am in my bedroom,’ which is weird.” She is studying philosophy at Laurier in combination with a law degree in England. Before too long at the party, she says, the virtual chats “were going crazy” as students shared their Facebook and Instagram accounts for future get-togethers.

Through its Home for Interactive Virtual Engagement (HIVE), Simon Fraser University organized groups of students by study disciplines, personal interests and time zones to meet in a safe online space facilitated by an upper-year student. HIVE members join chats, hold game nights over Zoom and hang out as if on campus. “We were really concerned about what we would lose in the online environment,” says Rummana Khan Hemani, vice-provost and associate vice-president, students and international, and registrar at SFU, which is located in Burnaby, B.C. “The peer-to-peer interaction that happens organically inside and outside the classroom had to be reimagined.”

HIVE participant Esha Sharma, a 17-year-old science undergraduate from nearby Surrey, B.C., was initially uneasy about how to build friendships without face-to-face interactions. “I was quite concerned about meeting new people, especially through this online event,” she says. But she quickly adapted after being paired with fellow science students in her group. “The HIVE has made me feel more relaxed and calm now that I know a few people who have similar interests and courses,” she says. “I have some connections going into university rather than starting it all alone.”

Ighalo chose to live off campus (Photograph by Alex Jacobs-Blum)
Ighalo chose to live off campus (Photograph by Alex Jacobs-Blum)

Frosh Week, reimagined

The transition to university is “a very exciting, intense and emotional time for students,” says Lindsay Lawrence, manager of transition and learning services in Laurier’s teaching and learning department. The pandemic “added some complexity.”

One challenge was to redesign Orientation Week, a festive event curated by student leaders and university officials to bind new students to the campus. “Orientation Week is extremely important,” says Laurier student union president Devyn Kelly, whose organization staged many online orientation activities this fall, including its signature fundraising event for cystic fibrosis. “Not only are you being acclimated to campus and meeting people, you are figuring out what you want to get involved in.”

This year’s Orientation Week featured a virtual game developed by past and current students in Laurier’s game design and development program. Over five days—with a new hour-long episode every day—freshmen were assigned to teams to solve a Harry Potter-esque mystery and learn about life at Laurier under the direction of upper-year mentors.

Designed as a fun, team-building exercise, The Laurier Way included learning outcomes that echoed those of a normal orientation week: to equip students to use the library, avoid plagiarism, manage time, plan careers, learn about academic and mental health supports, and discover how to become a Golden Hawk. The designers left time at the end of each game for freshmen to raise questions or concerns about the transition to university life. “These games are not just for recreation,” says Scott Nicholson, director of Laurier’s game design program. “You get something from these games, not just by playing but reflecting on what went on. The reflection is more important than the activity.”

READ: How Canadian colleges rose to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

The game is also a bonding tool, says Kate McCrae Bristol, dean of students at Laurier’s Waterloo campus. “It is giving us another opportunity to connect students with each other and mimic the campus experience.”

May Black, the first-year Laurier music student, was eager to play despite having already participated in COVID-spurred university webinars that rolled out over the summer to prepare students for the fall. She also completed a new Laurier academic preparation certificate for freshmen in how to thrive in an unfamiliar environment.

On the last day of August—the start of orientation and 10 days before moving into residence—Black played the first round of the game. “It is making me feel more connected,” she says, especially as the game designers paired her with players from her wing of residence. “I already know some faces before I go.”

Professors joining the cause

This summer, instead of conducting research, many professors hosted virtual webinars and mock lectures to familiarize freshmen with online learning.

That was true at Acadia, says politics department head Geoffrey Whitehall. His colleagues redesigned courses “to capture the ephemeral elements of teaching in a face-to-face, supportive environment” for the new learning reality. Seeking to strengthen faculty-student connections, his department revamped its approach to advising: instead of having a 20-minute chat at the end of term, students now meet designated faculty members throughout the year to discuss course selections and career aspirations. “It is to create a supportive environment and make sure those students don’t get lost,” says Whitehall.

At Laurier, chemistry professor Louise Dawe, one of seven faculty peer mentors at her institution, led virtual workshops for fellow professors to share tips on teaching large classes remotely. Since some high school graduates lost ground academically in the pivot to remote learning last spring, she designed a pre-university module for freshmen to review core principles of chemistry. And she redesigned her introductory chemistry course for virtual learning, pre-recording five- to 10-minute lectures to cover course themes that students can review repeatedly. “I am using regular class time [online] for problem-solving and questions,” says Dawe. “The lecture time now will be [largely] a tutorial instead of learning the stuff we would lecture them about.”

Her department also developed a mentor program for first-year students, pairing them with a faculty or staff person for informal meetings during the academic year. Stickiness, she says, “is exactly the goal. It’s about making sure students are part of something.”


This article appears in print in the 2021 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The COVID freshmen.”