Back to School?

September 4th, 2020 — thousands of university students across Canada move into their new home for the next 4-8 months, yet campuses still seem empty, as if no-one moved in at all. Obviously there are still a few small groups of people wandering the streets in relative isolation, and of course the mad stampede for groceries from Costco is still in full effect, but something feels… different. 14 hours in, and university in 2020 feels like a puzzle that you’re trying really hard to solve, yet you only have about a quarter of the pieces, and some leftover pieces from the last puzzle you did. Sure, you can definitely make something out of it, but the end result will probably be misshapen and incomplete.

Fundamentally, I think the value of a university experience is a weighted sum between the relationships you develop while you’re there and the difference between your ability to learn new ideas from when you start to when you finish. I don’t think that university has anything to do with actually learning new skills, unless you consider alcoholism a skill. If you actually want to learn tangible stuff, either pickup a book (yes, the paper things — they still exist) or enrol in a college program / bootcamp. COVID-19 has affected both terms in the weighted sum that governs a university experience, and the rest of this thing (essay? blog? rant? not sure to be honest) will go into this in much more detail.

First up, the easy term — your ability to learn new ideas. University has traditionally been really effective at teaching students how to temporarily appear intelligent in a particular area. It doesn’t seem that the ongoing pandemic will affect this dramatically, since the migration of the academic experience to online seems to have gone relatively well. Students will still have to cram for exams, still have to assume that a textbook is the ground truth on a subject, and still have to memorize a lot of dumb stuff. All in all, probably a delta between -5/-10%, mainly due to the lack of in-person class and lab time.

Okay, that was easy. Now for the hard term — the relationships you develop. I’d argue that the delta here is between -70/-80%, and even higher for particular (rather unlucky) groups of students. Certainly some students (those in upper years) will already have some “puzzle pieces” to work with, mainly in the form of pre-existing relationships and avenues to meet people, whereas a first-year student has almost no defined pathway to acquire these invaluable “assets”. The same can be written using more technical language: first-year university students in 2020 are really fucked. Let’s unpack this a little further.

An upper-year student going to university in 2020 has the pre-established channels in place for near constant communications with their friends. This network also has the effect of creating new relationships between peers via mutual friends and introductions. Obviously, the actual effectiveness of online interactions is nothing compared to that of in-person meetups, dates, and group activities, so upper-year students will struggle (yet probably manage) to at least maintain pre-existing relationships and create a few new ones. In my circles, we’ve mainly used Discord as a way to stay in touch, whether it’s via text message or voice/video call. So far, this has worked pretty well. I’ll probably do a post later on some more specifics here, as there are some interesting dynamics which emerge in these type of server communities.

Unlike the upper-year student, a first-year most likely doesn’t know many people at the university, and won’t have any of these pre-existing communication channels. It will be the responsibility of a) the university and b) the student to ensure that these pathways are built. Normally, an orientation week takes care of this pretty well. The university basically shoves together a bunch of sweaty freshman into a big pit (complete with fun sponsored and not sponsored activities) and lets the new students figure it out among themselves. Naturally, small groups emerge (usually in similar programs or fields) which end up being study groups and most likely lifelong friends. This “ball-pit” experience isn’t possible over video/audio/text — are you going to just shove a bunch of kids in a Zoom call and see what happens? Of course not, that would be an absolute shit show. Rather, both universities and students will have to create opportunities for one-on-one communication possibly followed by a referral to join an existing social circle or meet someone new. As a side note, there is definitely a startup or two waiting to be built in this space…

If you’re a first-year reading this, you’re probably terrified, as you should be. Your university will most likely try really hard (probably too hard) to help you make friends, and you need to work hard at it too. It’s not okay to sit in your room alone talking to no one for all of first-year, you’ll get really messed up (I’ve seen it numerous times). Instead, get out there (virtually, and maybe physically) and actually talk to people and start to form your network. This network will be the most valuable asset you get out of university, so nurture it and don’t take it for granted.

The alternative for first-year students is to defer until 2021, which I honestly think is a great idea. Not only does this get you an extra year to figure out what you are actually passionate about (which could help explain why you’re going to university in the first place), but this essentially guarantees strong relationships with peers during first-year with little effort on your part (the university will probably do the heavy lifting here).