1st-year university students in Calgary face tough choices for fall

·5 min read

The graduating class of 2020 has not had an easy year. And now, as deadlines loom closer for final decisions on post-secondary education, many of them are wrestling with some hard choices.

Is it best to opt for a local school where they won't be exposed to dormitory life? Or is it best to attend their top school of choice, regardless of the pandemic?

Is it time for a gap year?

Anthony Russell, 18, is still deciding between Mount Royal University in Calgary and his original first choice, the University of Alberta.

"I paid a deposit for MRU because I wasn't sure if I was going to be accepted into U of A," Russell told The Homestretch.

"But now that I am accepted, and with the pandemic going on, all the classes are online. So now I'm trying to figure out and decide if there's really any point in leaving Calgary to go into a dorm room, to take an online class, when I can just stay at home and then save a few dollars at the same time."

Russell says either way, he will attend university this fall.

"It is an exciting experience moving on to the next level in our education," he said. "Yes, the pandemic is a serious thing, but universities are taking the proper precautionary measures to keep everybody safe. So it's not really a thought in my mind that I need to take a year off because of the situation at the time that we are in right now."

Anis Heydari/CBC
Anis Heydari/CBC

As for that gap year, Dana Prather, 19, already took it. Now, she's anxious to get started with her university education at her school of choice, McGill University in Montreal.

"It's definitely a healthy mix of apprehensive and very excited," Prather said. "I mean, it's definitely a super exciting time for someone to be moving on to university. But with everything going on in the world and especially moving out to Quebec, it's definitely a little nerve-wracking right now."

Plans to live on campus

Prather is leaving in three weeks for McGill. She plans to live on campus.

"I'm living in upper res, which is one of the traditional style dormitories at McGill. And there aren't any roommates because of the COVID situation. So I do feel a bit better about that," she said. "But the dining hall and the bathrooms are shared."

Prather says she is keeping an open mind as the university's COVID plans come together, and that she thinks that is likely the same for all schools.

"From a lot of the emails and a lot of the updates we've been receiving — and I think a lot of my friends have been receiving from other universities — is that they're really just trying to play it by ear," she said. "As we've seen with the pandemic, things change so quickly and so drastically that it's really hard to tell and understand what everything is going to be like in the fall."

"It's definitely concerning."

The class of 2020 will be hit particularly hard by the economic effects of COVID-19, according to a Statistics Canada study released today.

The unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 hit a historical high of 29.4 per cent in May. Lucrative summer jobs have been lost or cancelled during COVID, but the study suggests the cumulative earnings losses from the first five years after graduation will also be significant.

"Students belonging to this year's class of high school, college and bachelor's degree graduates could lose from $23,000 to $44,000 over the next five years if this year's annual youth unemployment rate reaches 28.0 per cent," the study says. "This is equivalent to $4,600 to $8,800 per year."

Gap year popular

Russell says he supports many of his friends who have chosen to take a gap year and see how things evolve.

"My friends, most of them now … are wanting to take a year off," he said. "They think it is the best time to take a year off because classes aren't going to be as they usually would be. So they think taking a year off would be beneficial to them."

But for Russell, who will be studying law, crime and justice, he says not going this year would mean losing his dormitory spot, if and when residences are reopened in Alberta.

"We've been talking about it pretty much every day for the past few days, since I've been accepted," he said. "I can still go to the U of A without having to go to the dorms and everything because it is going to be an online class," he said. "If I don't take my dorm now, it won't be guaranteed for me later on. So later on I would have to find new accommodation."

It's just one of the issues Russell is grappling with as the days tick by.

"The conversation is basically should I just bite the bullet and go, so I have some security where I need to stay for the next few years."

Russell has to make the decision in the next week or two.

"It's been stressful. My mom will come into my room with another reason I should stay or why I should go, at obscene hours of the day, sometimes at night.

"It's just really nerve-racking."

Meanwhile, McGill has a high number of American students, which Prather says concerns her but not enough to deter her choice of school.

"I think the attitude that we've seen a lot of the American states take on in terms of social distancing and some of the mask thing is a bit concerning," she said. "But given that McGill is such a great university and such a great chance to further my education, that's definitely my priority."

Prather says her parents are nervous but support her choice to go to McGill, where she will study the cognitive sciences.

"It's definitely a really nerve-racking time for them, especially going to Quebec, where the numbers are so high and we've seen a lot of the worst hit areas be in Montreal and around Quebec.

"But they're definitely excited about me continuing that educational journey," she said. "And really not letting this pandemic be the thing that holds that back."

With files from The Homestretch.