New students are going to miss out on a lot of moments that make first year memorable

Much of the initial tangible, social experience of university is going to be lost on the incoming class of 2024

How can you virtually recreate the experience of the feeling of walking in on the first day of class? Illustration: Alex Vanderput/The Peak

By: Nathan Tok, Peak Associate

Do you remember your first day of classes? I vaguely recall a whirlwind of back-to-back classes as advised by my seniors, getting swamped outside C9001, and losing my beloved laptop mouse. Rest in peace. But despite all that, there were some good experiences and good people who made that first year memorable. When I consider the incoming Fall 2024 class coming into things in the middle of a pandemic, I can only think that they’re going to have a much different and even harder time than the rest of us, with so much fewer of the meaningful experiences that made it worthwhile.

First years coming into SFU for Fall 2020 are going to have as, everyone says, an “unprecedented” experience. There’s no way to sugarcoat this. The transition from high school to university is hard enough, but it’s going to be harder still without the full, unhindered support normally provided in person by the SFU experience. Advisors, professors, and SFU student services are now limited to what they can type in emails and chats or present over a Zoom call — this is the best they can do, but we all know that it’s easy to misinterpret or read things incorrectly in emails or worse, to overlook an email.

No matter what faculty or demographic, there are some common experiences shared by all students, and in particular, students who are entering the university environment for the first time. The most important thing I learnt in my first year was not so much the actual course material itself, but about how to function in a brand new environment. 

Take for example the importance of utilizing the expertise of a TA. We’ve all been there one day before an exam in the TA’s office, desperately trying to digest the material. Now Fall semester students will have to do this over email. This means a lot of back and forths sometimes just to confirm a simple yes or no question. And it gets much worse for subjects like math or economics where graphs and diagrams are sometimes needed to explain concepts. I mean, you can send images back and forth, but email can’t substitute sitting with a TA or a professor in their office and getting real-time help with the materials tangibly in front of you both.

And that’s not the only positive interaction that’s lost with remote learning. Incoming students will miss out on so much of the university life that earlier cohorts have taken for granted now that they have to stay home and study. This starts right from the first day on campus. Walking around the school, seeing the massive library and lecture halls, or playing one of the festival style games on the Convo Mall during Welcome Week. As current students, we often forget that Month of Welcome is not about us, but rather about showing incoming students the scale and potential of their new life now that they are in university. This experience will now be lost on the new Fall students, and they won’t be able to regain that sense of excitement and wonder if or when the school reopens for them.

And let’s not forget the social events that are also now gone. One way that previous cohorts have mitigated loneliness has been to participate in student life. We can put classes online but we cannot recreate those “deep” 1 a.m. conversations held while stuck in a computer lab working on a project. Nor can we recreate the sense of accomplishment students get when successfully completing a fundraiser as a team with their clubmates, and going out for celebratory drinks afterward. 

First years this fall will not be able to live out their student life to the fullest — at least, not to the same extent that us older cohorts have done in the past. So much of our learning and growing at university is done horizontally through our peers, not just top down from instructors. These kinds of interactions are now reduced to Facebook group chats and Canvas discussion boards, which though they are better than nothing, are still not ideal.

All this means that first years in Fall 2020, like the rest of us, are going to have to figure out a lot of things. But unlike the rest of us, they are going to have far fewer opportunities to connect with people in the way that made university tolerable to many of us seniors. 

Best of luck class of 2024, I don’t envy you. Your first year is going to be filled with new challenges no one has overcome before that might change your lives, but know that you, like all other first years will get through this, and become all the better because of it.