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“I really did think I would come back”: Graduating students reflect on completing their final year away from campus

By Sidra Jafri

In her first year, Molly Peters experienced her first snowfall in Toronto. Ryerson was covered in a blanket of snow, giving Peters a sense of peace. She took out her camera and took pictures of the campus atmosphere. People filled the streets, laughing with their friends and throwing snowballs at each other. It was a moment Peters would never forget.

“That was my first time ever seeing snow in a city, not on a mountain. Just seeing the streetlights reflect on the snow, that was my first time seeing that. I thought that was really beautiful,” said Peters.

Like many students, Peters misses the campus life at Ryerson and yearns for a return that might not happen due to COVID-19. 

On March 13 of last year, president Mohamed Lachemi announced that Ryerson classes and services would be moving online as the university shifted to an essential service model only. Since then, Ryerson has also postponed in-person convocation ceremonies for the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes.

“I remember my last day on campus…I wasn’t even prepared for it”

Now a fourth-year creative industries student, Peters won’t be coming back to campus after graduation. She’s spending her final year at Ryerson back home in Vancouver, and often misses the campus she used to see every day.

While Ryerson is marketed as the pinnacle of downtown studying, students know it colloquially as “Rye High’’ and often joke about being back in high school. Students famously grumble about getting lost in Kerr Hall, tedious and neverending Gould Street construction and the street’s particularly hideous smell. Now, those are just some of the things students reminisce on the most about campus. 

“I feel like, at the time, you always complain about whatever situation you’re in. I think as humans, we tend to look at the negative of things, even for the sake of conversation,” said Peters. 

But now, Peters thinks about all the places she used to make fun of or scowl at as places to revisit and treasure in the future.

“This one corner, Gerrard and Church, it always smelled like garbage all the time,” said Peters. “Now that I think back, I’m happy that Ryerson has all these really quirky corners because it makes the school so unique. It just makes for good stories and what are humans without stories?”

The end of Peters’ undergraduate career definitely wasn’t what she expected. She said she initially believed she would only be taking classes remotely for one semester and would return to campus for her final year and her convocation ceremony. 

“It was so sad because I really did think that I would come back. When the pandemic happened, I was like, ‘I’m definitely going to be back in the fall or in the winter just to say hi to my friends.’ But that’s not even a reality.”

Journalism student Victoria Marchisello is also in her fourth year at Ryerson. With her plans to graduate this June, she doesn’t see herself going back to campus for any reason.

Marchisello was a commuter student who would just attend her classes and then “get the hell home.” In April 2019, her third year of school, she finally began opening herself up to exploring the other buildings and areas of Ryerson.

When Marchisello was in between classes on campus, she always found herself exploring the inside of the Kerr Hall and Jorgenson Hall buildings, specifically the classrooms that had pianos. 

Having played the piano since fourth or fifth grade, piano-hopping became Marchisello’s favourite pastime on campus. But with no set timeline for reopening campus, it’s unlikely she’ll get the chance to explore again as a student. 

“I’m happy that Ryerson has all these quirky corners because it’s what makes the school so unique”

“It definitely sucks. Like, there’s no other way to put it. It’s not a good feeling. Especially because I remember my last day on campus…I wasn’t even prepared for it,” said Marchisello.

“It would be interesting to see what I missed because I probably am missing a ton of places on campus that I just never would have heard of. That kind of sucks too. I don’t even know what I’m missing out on.”

Lindsay McCunn is a professor of psychology at Vancouver Island University, with a specialty in environmental psychology. She explains that a person’s environment can affect their mood significantly through a person’s feeling of belonging to a place.

“The environment offers a lot of stimulation that we just don’t get from social interaction. There’s lighting, thermal comfort, acoustics and olfactory cues. This all often blends together to allow us to form what a lot of people call a sense of place,” said McCunn.

A sense of place is a combination of emotional attachment to a place; place identity which connects to a person’s beliefs and goals; and place dependence, where people can have a sense of behavioral compatibility, which is the ability to obtain goals in certain environments. 

Place dependence can be seen in educational environments. McCunn explains that being removed from campus and campus culture may have a negative impact on students.

“I think in a way, what we’re seeing in terms of some people’s feelings of loss, is a loss of attachment not only to the place, but to themselves and who they were, as they went through that place.”

“I almost don’t even feel like I’m in school and I definitely don’t feel like I’m done” 

For fifth-year urban and regional planning student Merissa Baichulall, whose career and education is dependent on working with outdoor environments, having a lack of access to the outside world has negatively impacted her work ethic.

Being away from campus and not being able to participate in hands-on assignments and labs has left Baichulall in limbo. “It feels kind of weird,” said Baichulall. “I almost don’t even feel like I’m in school and I definitely don’t feel like I’m done.”

While Baichulall completed her intensive studio classes before her final year, her friends didn’t get the same experience. “I feel bad for them that they didn’t get that opportunity to feel what that feels like. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it online,” she said.

As a professor, McCunn said she can see that her students miss being able to act as students would on campus. “Their identity is changed because of a lack of environmental input that they had, in a face-to-face environment at school, not only with their professors, but with their peers. And it’s just not something that learning online seems to overcome,” said McCunn.

McCunn suggests that a way to temporarily combat negative feelings from being away from campus, and the outside world, is by creating a stimulating environment at home. Students can do this by incorporating plant life into their environment or studying near a window. McCunn, herself, sometimes listens to woodland bird sounds on YouTube  in order to fabricate a sense of outdoors.

Baichulall’s brother began his first year at Ryerson this fall. She said she was looking forward to attending the school together, but with the lockdown restrictions, they never got the opportunity to go to the coffee shops and restaurants they were planning to go to.

“It’s stuff that I won’t get to do now. So you miss those opportunities…You’ve missed those little interactions and seeing things like that,” said Baichulall.

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