Psychology lecturer Dr. Benjamin Cheung was in the middle of a midterm prep session when one of his students notified him that starting Monday, March 16, 2020, classes would be online due to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic.
The midterm for Cheung’s class was scheduled for Monday, March 16, 2020.
“I almost felt weak in my knees … It was funny because my students could see how immediately stressed out I was.”
Cheung recalled a student coming up to his desk after class and giving him a post-it note that said “Don’t give up.”
A year later, students and faculty are struggling not to.
COVID-19 has changed the way UBC has functioned, and professors and students have adapted. But by adapting, new pressures mounted and some priorities simply slipped through the cracks.
For a year, students and faculty have largely been expected to carry on as if a pandemic wasn’t happening.
In the AMS’s COVID-19 Impacts on UBC Students survey, the majority of students said that COVID-19 caused an overall negative impact on their mental health — with 40.7 per cent agreeing and 25 per cent strongly agreeing.
Minji Seo, a second-year science student, said her mental health has suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seo said when she reached out to the UBC Student Assistance Program, she was referred to a program that she was not eligible for. After that, she was given a list of therapists in her area, with no other instruction.
“I've always heard of students being frustrated with the lack of mental health support [at UBC], but I never realized that and it didn't hit me until I was actually the one seeking for it.”
Due to the lack of mental health support, faculty have become a resource for students to reach out to. But faculty members like Cheung found it difficult to be that resource for students.
“Many of [my students] were experiencing a lot of mental health issues because of the lockdown and because of anti-Asian racism … I sort of ended up becoming like an unofficial mental health support for a lot of students, and that that has its own emotional toll,” Cheung said.
Dr. Charles Menzies, an anthropology professor, said that he wants to stay away from the “course and a half phenomenon” — referring to instructors who made their classes more difficult now that they’re teaching online.
“[Students] are going to be feeling the same kind of emotional issues that I’m feeling, but I have a responsibility … to try to reach them and bring them into this learning space,” Menzies said.
A new form of student engagement
Student societies and faculty have worked to keep students engaged and involved, even through a screen.
Angelina Ge, the current associate VP administration for the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS), spoke on how SUS is working to enhance the student experience, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
“We really try our best to accommodate for students and to make the experience as similar as possible to what it would be like in person, but obviously this is something that is really difficult to do.”
Ge talked about Zoom fatigue and how the online format of events has not only contributed to fatigue, but also leave students overwhelmed by a surplus of online events and uninterested in attending.
Cheung has connected with students through Discord and Twitch streaming.
“I think a big part of this is creating community. I have found it so enjoyable to be in the same Discord servers as my students and to create such a community where people are chatting with each other.”
Cheung spoke fondly about holding a Discord stream while cooking dinner.
“It was nice to be able to connect with students in that way and I think that's something that I want to be able to carry over once we come out on the other end of this tunnel.”
Graduate students ‘slipping through the cracks’
Much of the focus on student supports during the COVID-19 pandemic has been on undergraduate students, but Dr. Izabella Laba, a professor of mathematics, said that has left graduate students “slipping through the cracks.”
“These students are the people who are probably losing the most right now,” Laba said.
68.6 per cent of respondents to the AMS’s COVID-19 survey, both gradate and undergraduate students, agreed that UBC did not provide enough financial aid to students, to alleviate the stress caused by COVID-19.
Ashni Gill, a master of arts student and the VP external-elect of the Graduate Student Society said that “it’s a yes and no situation when it comes to being supported [as graduate students].”
Gill said that though graduate students are provided with the same mental health support that undergraduate students receive, they are not supported by the BC government the same way undergraduates are.
The BC Access Grant, implemented in August 2020 is available to students in an undergraduate degree, diploma and certificate programs based on financial need — but excludes graduate students.
Currently, the Graduate Student Societies of British Columbia are calling on the BC government to extend the BC Access Grant to include graduate students and for the BC Graduate Scholarship to become permanent.
Looking back on March 2020, faculty and students spoke of shock and chaos.
Dr. Juliet O’Brien, a lecturer in the department of French, Hispanic & Italian Studies, said that she and many of her colleagues worked thirty hours that weekend before classes went online and the weekends after the transition.
Seo remembered her experience as a then first-year student moving out of Orchard Commons.
“I didn’t think it would hit on this random day in March, but it did,” said Seo.
As the pandemic progressed and the weeks at home turned to months, Cheung kept the post-it note.
“I had it stuck onto my laptop for a little while, just because it was a reminder for me to just keep on. Just keep on working until this is over,” Cheung said.
This article has been updated to clarify the meaning Dr. Charles Menzies’s “class and a half phenomenon.”