By Maia Herriot, Maple League Student Fellow, Mount Allison University
I am a graduating student. As I process the loss of so many “lasts” and struggle with a steadily mounting fear of the future, the only sentiments that help me are those that urge us to think of this crisis as a liminal space between worlds. I am not afraid of the loss of the world as it was pre-COVID-19, I am afraid of the further damage that trying to return to that world would do. If we do not come out of this changed we have learned nothing. We must let this be an opportunity for conscious growth. We did not have the power to stop this crisis but we do have the power to decide how we let it change us.
For small universities such as ours, which were built on a belief in the benefits of learning in tight-knit communities and have resisted moving courses online, this is a terrifying time. When Mount Allison was shut down in March my classes did not move online. Professors and students agreed that our seminar discussions just wouldn’t be the same. Now the fall semester looms over universities, forcing them to make a choice. With international students likely unable to return in time for September and many students facing financial barriers to returning to university or entering university after a summer with limited opportunities for employment, reopening the universities as usual with in-person classes is a risk. This crisis did not invent these problems; it has only made them more clear. In recent years, universities have been increasingly reliant on international students to boost tuition and enrolment numbers and there is a long history of discussion around the ways in which the university institution supports elitism, not just academically but financially. Many universities have been growing their international centres and developing programs to support first-generation students (those who are the first in their family to attend university and may have financial or experiential barriers to adapting to university life). Yet students are still leaving our institutions struggling under the weight of thousands of dollars of debt and international students are paying tuition costs that are exorbitantly higher than their Canadian peers.
To me, this forced pause in which universities must decide how to reshape themselves after this crisis is an opportunity to change the centre our institutions rotate around. There is a lot of talk in higher education about “student-centric” experiences but behind those ideas, and at the centre of our institutions, is the reality that universities often have an unspoken type of student in mind. That student is me. I am white and middle class and those privileges allowed me to easily walk the path of an engaged student and community member. I had the financial freedom to move across Canada to attend a small liberal arts university. I was able to accept work on campus that did not pay living wages, choosing to invest in my community instead of being forced to invest in myself, because I have outside investors. One of those investors is the university itself, who gave me scholarships I did not apply for as a reflection of my grades and community involvement. I think there is a balance we must strike, between better financially and structurally supporting students without my privileges to achieve a similar student experience, and working around the fact that some students have nonnegotiable barriers to transplanting to a small town and devoting four years wholly to learning.
I think being forced to move a semester online will aid in a shift toward this balance. Online courses mean more students can reasonably attend university because the virtual nature allows them to make choices like skipping rent costs by living at home and lessening debt by working through school. We could still have small class sizes, we could still have a liberal arts structure. We could learn to speak to each other through a screen. It will be different, much will be lost. Did you think everything was going to stay the same? How long did you think we could keep this up? If this crisis does not bring on great change in the university structure, the climate crisis will. These crises are not equalizers: they do not impact everyone the same, and they reveal great disparities in our societies and structures. Many of you reading this are in the privileged position — at home on your computers, teaching or learning in higher education — to work to repair some of these disparities. We have the power to lean into what these changes ask of us and the ability to move from mourning losses to working on creating future-focused opportunities that lessen the pain of what we have lost.
This is a strange argument to be making while I myself mourn the loss of so many in-person experiences that were taken from me in the last month. I am very glad that I did my degree at Mount Allison and that is due in large part to the close relationships I was able to form with my professors and peers. However, in the four years I spent in New Brunswick, I still managed close relationships with my family and friends from home, through screens. Finally, I want to say that “going online” to whatever degree each institution decides to, does not have to be some great fracturing. As I said, this may mean more students are able to take courses from our institutions, and it is also an opportunity to reach out to each other, across institutions. The Maple League has offered several courses in previous semesters which were taught by a professor at one institution to students from all four. Adapting to a changed world is not an individual effort. In an article for the Financial Times, Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari wrote about his hope that “the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity.” I have the same hope for our universities. This crisis has made the Maple League’s driving question of “what can we do together that we cannot do alone” more urgent than ever.
Maia Herriott is a member of the graduating Class of 2020 at Mount Allison University, and Maple League TLC (Teaching & Learning Centre) Student Fellow.