A dive into the online communities at the University of Toronto and a sincere thank you.

By Cooper Barron & Eden Zorne, Associate editors

Image source: Hedgehog Digital

I remember the cool winter air of mid-December. It blew in from my window and it cooled down my awfully stuffy room back at the University of Waterloo, back before I transferred to the University of Toronto. I was cramming hard on one of my English essays, preparing my summative project on “Ugly Poems for an Ugly World.” 

It must’ve been a Friday or Saturday night because there was cheering and music radiating above and below me in Beck Hall, one of the student residences, and I couldn’t focus at all.  It was painful to know that we would likely be sent home by the end of next semester because of the constant parties and the inevitability of a substantial COVID-19 wave throughout the campus. 

I wished that they would’ve stopped, but at the same time, I wished I could’ve joined them. Opting out of the first-year university experience because of my own social obligation to the community during COVID-19 was my own choice, but it was a choice I expected everyone else to take as well. When I heard the other first-year students partying, it seemed like everyone else could care infinitely less than me. Of course, I wasn’t perfect either. I snuck out and binged Harry Potter in one of my friend’s dorms with a few other people, but I avoided house parties—as well as the people who went to them.

I thought my last chance to make long-lasting friendships at University would be through online communities, so I joined Discords, clubs, newsletters, tried to put my foot in every door possible, but nothing stuck. On the main student-run Discord, people would act like you did not even exist if you tried to join their conversation. First-years were routinely ignored and actively pushed away. The high-brow elitism that struck some Computer Science students at the University of Waterloo and their unabashed, constant ribbing of humanities majors on a regular basis alienated me to no end, but still, not everyone was all bad. I was lucky enough to finish my first year with a wonderful group of friends, both online and in-person even through the pandemic, but with the lack of funding for the Arts department and the lack of variety for English courses at Waterloo as well as the toxic community, culture led to my transfer to the University of Toronto in Mississauga. 

Now I’m back to ground zero because of my transfer, and I’m experiencing all of the same beats— the third wave to the fourth, partiers, and self-isolators. Unfortunately, this time I’m a year into my undergrad, and I’m still living at home. My last vestige to make friends would still have to be online.

When I joined an online community for UTM—a large discord known as ‘UTM White Van’—I realized my expectations were totally off. There was no elitism, people were accepting of even “lowly English majors”, and there was a thriving online community that actively tried to incorporate and accommodate everyone, from future students to alumni. They host frequent movie nights and low-stakes small public gatherings and it allowed me to make friends across different campuses and have a place to fall back to when I feel like I’m missing out on the ‘university experience.’

White Van showed me that I could simultaneously do my part in socially distancing and making friends while getting the ‘university experience’ that I longed for. 

Despite being from the University of Toronto in Mississauga, I’ve been able to meet plenty of interesting, charming, and friendly people all the way over in Trinity College. Their experience hasn’t been too far from different from mine— which reminded me of how we’re all in this together. They, like me, were trapped in a tiny dorm room, listening to those around them partying and living it up like there wasn’t a global pandemic raging around them. Like me, they were also disappointed with the university experience, especially knowing all that Trinity College was supposed to offer. Trinity was meant to be a small, tight-knit community, with magical High Table dinners and balls, academic gowns, satirical debates, and a dose of elitism. The students and staff alike tried their best, but the Zoom recreations of such events seemed half-hearted and impersonal. It was a depressing reality for them, being on campus but not getting to do anything that campus was supposed to offer. Online groups were harder for them than they were for me, but they still made it through the unprecedented first year with a wonderful group of friends. This helped them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the light that is hopefully this upcoming school year.

It’s easy to get upset or nihilistic about this whole matter. The unfortunate truth is that this is our reality, and this is the undergrad experience we have been given. Some people ask, ‘were the lockdowns really necessary?’ The third wave happened eventually, and now, we’re veering into a mighty fourth. Were the sacrifices of fellow self-isolators in vain? 

I don’t think so.

In the end, I believe it separates the wheat from the chaff. It shows people’s character and should act as a clear red flag: behaviour like mistreating service workers, leaving a shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot, or not getting an FDA-approved vaccine because of “rights” and “freedom.” It shows that these people could care less about anyone outside of their direct proximity. 

So, self isolators, this article goes out to you. You gave up your chance to party. You avoided hangouts. You even avoided going outside most of the time. You lost FROSH week and were given an online half-measure by the university. You trod the unknown waters of an international pandemic, alone. You, who are immunocompromised or have immunocompromised parents, siblings, or children, this goes out to you.  You, who graduated without a ceremony, who was mailed their degree—or worse yet, had their name called out in a Zoom call. 

I understand the awful FOMO you’re going through, and the trick is to accept it. I have. We were never going to have the movie-tier ‘university experience,’ nobody does. That was always a fantasy. University is about getting an education, and this pandemic continues to be a better professor than most of us often realize— it taught me self-reliance, it taught me how to manage myself in times of crisis, and it taught me how lucky that all of us are to even be learning online through a pandemic. Perspective is key in this matter.

It’s not all bad. 

University is what you make of it, and when you walk out of Convocation Hall for the last time, be it this year or in five, you will look back on this pandemic as something that you defeated against all the odds.

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