‘Huge excitement’ on ‘big campus’

·3 min read

Frantic searches to find the right classroom — a timeless back-to-school tradition before COVID-19 caused a widespread shift to remote learning — marked the start of the year for many students at Red River College Polytechnic.

The Winnipeg-based post-secondary institute celebrated the first official day of 2022-23 classes Monday. With in-person operations back at pre-pandemic levels, concerns about entering the wrong lab or lecture hall have largely replaced anxieties about technical glitches and accidental muting.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Cyber Jan Naniong, 17, who spent the latter half of his high school career in flux, with a mix of virtual and face-to-face instruction. “It’s a big campus.”

Naniong, who is studying mechanical engineering, was one of few learners who chose to don a medical mask to visit the Notre Dame Avenue campus.

RRC Polytech has loosened its public health rules, in line with the provincial government’s hands-off approach during the latest phase of the pandemic.

Face coverings are optional and social distancing decals are no longer as prevalent as they were across campus this time last year.

Polytechnic president Fred Meier said many community members, himself included, have taken part in “a long wait” for the return of bustling campus life.

Meier began a five-year term in July 2020, as schools across the country grappled with reopening plans following the sudden arrival of COVID-19. Before Monday, he had yet to experience a traditional back-to-school season at the post-secondary institute.

Face-to-face learning was limited to “essential” hands-on components of courses and industry training for much of 2020-21 and 2021-22.

“It was all online and I was sitting at home, looking at the laptop and always bored, sleepy,” said Manpreet Kaur, president of the Red River College Students’ Association, recalling her first year in the business technology management program.

Kaur said she will never take the opportunity to meet peers face-to-face or do group projects in-person for granted again.

For the first time in three years, the students association is running a series of in-person orientation initiatives to launch the fall semester. Student leaders are running informational booths, handing out freebies and operating a selfie station at the Notre Dame campus.

“I can’t stop smiling,” said Eddy Lau, director of international education at RRC Polytech, who organized the school’s 2022-23 orientation sessions. “The energy, the vibes is just so different (in comparison to virtual welcomes in recent years). There’s just a huge excitement.”

While noting everyone is relieved about the sense of normalcy in-class instruction brings, Meier said instructors will not forget the lessons learned through incorporating new technologies into their courses.

The college plans to continue operating its new Immersion Room, a facility that opened during the pandemic to offer unique 360-degree educational experiences through projections of images on all four walls that create simulated field work environments.

“Some of our learners do want the opportunity to take things online because they’ve got lives, they’ve got employment happening or they might be parents and taking care of children, so that flexibility is critically important for them,” Meier said, adding more programs will be available online than there were pre-pandemic.

Vera Jackson, who is enrolled in business administration, is getting reacquainted with a return to in-person instruction. The 21-year-old said she liked e-learning because she could sleep in, did not have to commute, and the flexible schedule allowed her to work more hours at her job.

Jackson said she was nervous about meeting new friends and visiting campus Monday.

“I’ve gotten COVID twice, so I think it’s best for me to be safe than sorry,” she said, in reference to her decision to don a mask to class.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press