Lynn Ross remembers feeling a strong sense of community at the start of her second year at Mount Allison University, moving into a house where fellow students were always around.
"It was like living with a huge extended family," she said.
That was more than 30 years ago.
Now the students following in her footsteps this year are facing a stark contrast to the social experience of the past, arriving on campus at a time when many will be required to go into isolation.
The typical orientation week activities have gone virtual as hundreds of students start their semester alone, spending 14 days in a residence room or off-campus while awaiting the start of classes.
The reality of returning to university during a pandemic compelled Ross to help out.
She's part of a program that pairs Mount Allison alumni with students in quarantine.
They connect virtually through phone calls and video chats to help keep loneliness at bay. It's an initiative called AVATARS — Alumni Volunteers Acting to Assist Residence Students in Self-Isolation.
It is part of a series of online programming for students to do during isolation, ranging from recorded lectures and games to orientation sessions.
'Alumni just feel so bad'
Carolle de Ste-Croix, Mount Allison's director of alumni engagement, said her office received so much interest from former students it had enough volunteers in 24 hours. The program later opened up to those living off-campus.
"I think our alumni just feel so bad that these students have to go through this," she said. "We've all experienced the strain of COVID in one way or another so we can relate to that."
Volunteers were prepared with a Zoom session that included mental health training and an overview of how the campus has changed to adapt to the pandemic.
"Unless you're here, it's really hard to grasp how different it is," de Ste-Croix said. "But yet we're really trying to make this experience as fulfilling for our first-year students and all our students."
Boosting quarantine morale
Ross earned degrees at Mount Allison in 1990 and 1991. Now an elementary school teacher in Kingston, Ont., she was matched with second-year student Isra Amsdr.
Their first conversation lasted more than an hour and ranged from discussing their common interests of art and philosophy to experiences at the university.
"We were both tearful at times, which is like crazy. I've never met her before," Ross said.
Amsdr has been quarantining in her dorm room since arriving from Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 15.
She expected the experience in isolation to be "super depressing" but she has been keeping busy with a remote internship and creating art.
The fine arts and psychology major appreciates the opportunity to speak with an alumna.
"I think part of what's contributed to it not being that bad is having that extra interaction and knowing that I have these scheduled times with my AVATAR to engage in conversation," Amsdr said.
Mount Allison decided to have its students from outside the Atlantic bubble return early this year to give them enough time to isolate before the rest of its students move into residence
The university will be offering many courses online, in addition to some on-campus activities that are more hands-on.
Students staying in residence are largely confined to their single-occupancy residence rooms while isolating, with meals delivered to their doors. They have access to supervised areas outdoors to get fresh air a few times a day.
Mount Allison and the town of Sackville have been working together to ensure students living off-campus are able to get what they need while quarantining.
Pandemic aside, Ross and Amsdr have discovered little has changed in the community.
The town of Sackville went from one traffic light to two in the 34 years since Ross was a student. But university life during the pandemic is the complete opposite.
When Ross was on campus, she recalled spending most of her time outdoors, in classes and out involved in the Sackville community.
"You were hardly ever in your dorm room," she said. "I can't imagine being indoors all day for two weeks, except for two supervised visits."
Amsdr said she has learned life lessons from Ross, such as considering pursuing goals at her own pace.
"it's not very often you get the opportunity to talk to someone you sort of don't know but you're sort of related in a sense, and share similar experiences," she said.
They both say they look forward to their next conversation. In the meantime, Ross has started putting together a care package to ship to New Brunswick.
"I really think it hinges on this sense of community and care for one another," she said. "And I think that happens in a small university, it happens in a small community, and it's truly something to celebrate."