Manitoba’s largest university is welcoming all of its students back for in-person classes this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic — a relief for some U of Manitoba newbies who say they struggled with virtual learning in high school.
For some, like first-year computer science student Isaac Nimmagadda, the buzz of activity and the campus environment were a bit overwhelming on Wednesday, as the 2022-23 post-secondary year officially got underway.
“It’s a lot different than high school and so I’m kind of just figuring it out as I go,” said Nimmagadda.
The hurried rush of students moving between buildings and navigating their new schedules looked as close to normal as it has since before March 2020, when the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the province.
The U of M allowed all vaccinated students and staff back on campus last November.
At the time, the university said 72 per cent of staff and 81 per cent of the student body had declared they were immunized against COVID-19.
Some first-year students CBC spoke with on Wednesday shared how challenging it was to learn virtually in their last years of high school. Others emphasized the social perks of being back on campus, including networking and building relationships.
First-year student Pauline Lucena said her senior year of high school was thankfully in-person, after a long stretch of virtual learning earlier in the pandemic. But she said she felt a distance from her friends while learning remotely before that.
“I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle online classes for my first year of uni,” said Lucena, who is in the faculty of arts and has an interest in sociology.
WATCH | University students head back to in-person classes:
“One of my main goals going into uni is to make a lot of long-lasting connections, so that’s really important to me.”
Walnain Baloch, a first-year student studying criminology in the arts faculty, echoed Lucena’s sentiment.
Baloch was relieved to be on campus after taking a gap year last year, following her high school graduation in spring 2021.
“I realized I just couldn’t focus in online classes,” said Baloch, 19. “It kind of put a wedge in my plans, and also, I just couldn’t retain any information that was being given in online classes. It was just really hard.”
Brandy Usick, the university’s executive director for engagement and academic success, said the keenness to be back on campus is already showing through. More than ever, students are already getting involved in campus life, Usick said.
“You can tell that they’re excited — they’re asking about opportunities to connect with other students, how to get involved in different student clubs.”
One leftover from the time of widespread restrictions is masking. The U of M is among the few post-secondary institutions in Manitoba keeping its indoor mask policy in place. Booth University College is another retaining its mandate.
St. Boniface University suspended its mask rule as of Sept. 1. The University of Winnipeg, University College of the North, Red River College Polytechnic, Brandon University and Canadian Mennonite University previously said they are not requiring mask use on campus.
Usick said the decision at U of M was made to protect the community.
Agam Kahlon, another first-year student, said he wasn’t totally prepared for having to wear masks in class again, coming from a high school that did away with that mandate.
“I don’t like it,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just because literally the first lecture was so hot, and I was wearing a mask and I could not handle it.”
Kahlon, who is taking a mix of science courses and is also focused on improving his times in track and field, said being on campus didn’t feel like a huge leap. His experience at the Maples Met School prepared him well for post-secondary school, he said.
Like Kahlon, Nimmagadda said the continuation of a mask policy also caught him off guard, but he so far also feels well-supported by U of M faculty and staff.
Despite feeling a bit overwhelmed, he says it was important for him that classes be in-person again.
“When I was online, I didn’t get that same quality of education and I don’t think I learned as well,” he said. “So while I’m here, especially that I’m paying for it, I’d rather get a good university experience.”